by Dr. Mark McDonald, Professor of the Practice of Civil Engineering at Lipscomb University
There is no doubt after the transit referendum that the proposed master plan was found to be a train wreck by almost two of three voters. This is a most unfortunate situation, as the window of time to manage Nashville’s rapid growth is shrinking and if not managed competently, Nashville will pay dearly for it. In this article I will provide my insight as to why the plan failed, what I think is good and bad about the result, and where I believe Nashville should go from here.
Let’s first of all establish a few baseline facts. Nashville’s surface streets in the urban core are approaching gridlock at peak hours. Nashville’s interstates are operating regularly at level of service F at peak times, when most of our citizens need the network to be reliable and efficient. Our primary arterials are operating at capacity, and we will have a very large number of people moving to middle Tennessee in the next 20 years. Our city’s infrastructure is totally unprepared to handle this population explosion, and to make matters worse, the additional motorists expected on our highways will require traffic to slow further for drivers to maintain safe spacing. The arrival rate will go up at bottlenecks, the service rate will go down at bottlenecks, and the transportation system will fail to serve its needed function in the coming years. Any analysis of traffic data found on Google Maps easily confirms the truth that Nashville is facing a serious transportation crisis in the coming years.
This impending crisis will be fueled by a network of major problems. First, 80 to 100 people will be moving to Nashville every day, with a wide distribution of income. Second, these people must find a place to live in a housing market where demand far exceeds supply. Third, the places in middle Tennessee with homes that are affordable are often outside of Davidson County. Fourth, many will work in Nashville but will not be able to afford to live near their place of employment and must commute. Fifth, Nashville has a hub and spoke structure to its transportation network, and people often find themselves choosing housing options as close to the interstates as possible, placing them far away from the urban core. Sixth, families with children often choose to live outside the reach of Metro Nashville Public Schools. These dynamics are creating sprawl that is out of control and a perfect storm for Nashville’s transportation system.
Nashville is not alone in facing rapid urban growth. Cities worldwide have been dealing with these problems, and the very best strategy for dealing with rapid urbanization is to place infrastructure and development in socially desirable locations before people show up. Of course, doing so requires careful attention to issues in equity, as gentrification disrupts neighborhoods and often leaves the economically disadvantaged most vulnerable to being forced out of their neighborhoods.
So why would a comprehensive transit plan that will provide sorely needed capacity fall flat at the ballot box? A number of poor decisions were made that turned the plan for light rail into a train wreck. Let’s list at least a few of them.
1. The public lost trust in Megan Barry, and for good reason. This plan was synonymous with the Mayor and many likely saw the transit referendum as a chance to express public outrage over her egregious actions. I think that this created the Achilles Heel that made life easy for the no tax side. This one issue alone ran the plan off the rails.
2. Light rail and the tunnel were too expensive for most Nashvillians to swallow. While Nashvillians would have still had an overall tax burden far less than the vast majority of Americans even if the plan passed, many moved to Nashville because of its low tax rates. Regardless of the need or merit, most Nashvillians thought of these as too expensive.
3. More attention should have been paid to autonomous vehicle (AV) technology. Autonomous vehicles have the capacity to do great things. They will solve problems of access and egress, but they will not likely shift the balance of traffic demand. It is highly questionable whether the public, who is addicted to their cars, would be willing to adopt the AV mode of transit. If people don’t give up use of their personal vehicles then AV’s solve absolutely nothing. People are addicted to independence and trip chaining. People prefer not to sit in taxi cabs the whole city sits in. There will be much more public resistance to adoption of AV’s.
However, AV’s will likely be an essential part of a successful total transportation system, and should be integrated in the overall scheme of operations.
4. More use of dedicated infrastructure BRT should have been made. While AV’s are likely to become an essential part of the transit plan, and the right fleet composition of AV’s will help improve operations, BRT can be quickly implemented. BRT should have dedicated lanes, as it will not be competitive without the dedicated infrastructure. However, certain types of AV’s can possibly become part of the flow in BRT lanes (especially MTA operates AV’s), and in time, the vehicles used in the express lane will have higher degrees of automation regardless of size and capacity.
5. Marketing for the plan was incompetent. The pro transit side did not make the case to the public of why transit creates enormous external benefits and why those traveling by their personal vehicle benefit from a transit system. When a few drivers switch modes on roadways operating near capacity, every other user still driving their own vehicle have significant reductions in travel time. As such transit systems need not pay for themselves at the farebox. Their existence is justified on the basis of the external benefits they provide society.
6. Nashvillians are unhappy with the consequences of not having to pay the social costs of their own travel activities, but refuse to pay even part of the social costs of their travel activities, either in the form of paying for additional infrastructure capacity or in congestion pricing (which is currently legislatively impractical).
7. Dark money. This was a factor on both sides. While Andy Martin of No Tax 4 Tracks believes that the dark money on his side was justified because it saved the taxpayers money, I feel that the dark money on the other side was equally justified on the merits of increased capacity of the system which would have provided sorely needed capacity and travel time reliability.
While I wish dark money was not a part of this referendum I do think it hurt the pro transit side more as the potential for conflicts of interest was far greater on the pro transit side.
8. A poor choice of election date. The referendum date in all likelihood drew those who wereunhappy with the plan at an over represented rate. The general election would have likely seen a larger turnout and a tighter margin.
So what’s bad about the results? First of all, there is no capacity to be added to the network in the near future. Second, Nashville is losing control over its growth and has less ability to make smarter growth happen. Third of all, time is wasted when decisive action is needed to control sprawl.
But is there a silver lining? I should say so. Nashville largely rejected light rail and a tunnel, but other cheaper and effective measures can be implemented much sooner than 2032. The big question is what the measures to implement. In my opinion, they should be:
1. Building neighborhood transit centers. These centers facilitate the transition of the bus network from a hub and spoke system to a system with greater connectivity as well as providing comfortable and safe spaces for transfers.
2. Increasing the number of cross town routes. Travelers should not have to transfer at Music City Central to make a trip on the same side of town on a different street. The lack of tangential lines and the requirement to transfer at the central hub also makes the bus infeasible for many trips.
3. Expansion of bus service, especially on heavily traveled corridors. In many parts of Davidson County, bus service is so infrequent that the bus is not a viable mode of transportation. To get more people to choose socially responsible modes of travel, the mode must be a viable one. This is axiomatic.
4. Development of dedicated BRT lanes in key corridors, especially the corridors where light rail was proposed. This is likely to run into resistance from the no tax side, because it will likely require a good deal of money to implement. However, the expense will be nowhere near the amount that would be required with light rail). The driving public will likely complain that precious road space is given to transit. However, the public must also realize that in less than 20 years their driving habits will be unsustainable with current infrastructure. A tipping point is coming where traveling in a single occupancy vehicle is so difficult that it would be better to use BRT. At that point a BRT and perhaps a combined BRT and high occupancy autonomous vehicle lane will be needed to manage the overflow and provide reasonable and reliable travel times.
5. Paying close attention to the infrastructure needs of AV’s and meeting them to the greatest extent possible, and choosing implementation policies that encourage travelers to make socially responsible decisions.
6. Make every effort to densify residences and provide mixed land use along important corridors.
Nashville can solve this impending crisis. It will require a less ambitious transit master plan that integrates sensible concepts for access and egress with cost effective measures to increase passenger throughput on its busiest corridors. It must be poised to take advantage of AV’s when they become commonplace. Nashville must have the will to make developers develop socially responsible housing along important mobility corridors to prevent sprawl.
It isn’t going to be free. It will cost money. It will require people to modify their behavior and use modes of transportation they haven’t used before. Fortunately, past experience shows that people are flexible if they have options. When a portion of the upper deck of the San Francisco Bay Bridge collapsed in the Loma Prieta Earthquake of 1989, the BART tunnel under the San Francisco Bay was fortunately left undamaged. The BART trains ran very full as people switched modes under extreme conditions. As travelers find congestion to be increasingly painful, many will eventually switch modes to transit if it is a reasonable alternative in Nashville.
Any realistic solution won’t fix all congestion problems, but the pain of traffic congestion should be used to steer users toward a transit option with enough capacity to handle the overflow demand. But the costs of not expanding the capacity of our transportation system will, in a few years time, be enormous, and I believe that Nashvillians will come to see that a major capacity upgrade is absolutely necessary.
I sincerely hope the realization doesn’t come too late.
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Dr. Mark McDonald is a Professor of the Practice of Civil Engineering at Lipscomb University where he has taught a wide array of courses in Civil Engineering, including Transportation Engineering, Structural Engineering, Civil Engineering Materials, Engineering Economy, and Senior Design. He holds the Bachelor of Civil Engineering (2003, Summa Cum Laude and University Honors Scholar) from Auburn University, the MSCE (2004) from the University of California at Berkeley, and the Ph.D. (2008) in Civil Engineering from Vanderbilt University, where he served three years as an Assistant Professor before choosing to focus his career on engineering education. Dr. McDonald is a former Dwight D. Eisenhower Transportation Fellow and a former NSF IGERT Fellow in Reliability and Risk Engineering. He has published over 40 peer reviewed research papers in structural reliability, pavements and materials, transportation systems analysis, and the optimization of Civil Engineering systems.