Nashville's massive effort in light rail holds both promise and problems | Crain's Nashville

Nashville's massive effort in light rail holds both promise and problems

Nashville transportation planners and engineers are looking at Denver's light rail system as a potential model for similar Music City. | Photo by Jeffrey Beall via Flickr

After tracking light-rail operations in peer cities like Denver and Portland, Ore., Music City residents may soon be climbing aboard for work and pleasure on the multiple-corridor rail system that forms a major component of the $6 billion nMotion transportation overhaul in Middle Tennessee. 

Denver, Portland and other cities have seen enormous growth after funding and installing additional mass-transit options such as light rail, trolley, and bus rapid transit lines, with features like dedicated rights-of-way and off-board fare collection.

Statistics from other cities – such as Portland – that have invested in mass transit solutions are impressive. According to Erin Hafkenschiel, director of the Nashville Mayor Megan Barry's Office of Transportation and Sustainability, modernized mass transit in Portland has generated $1.1 billion in economic benefits, 8,300 new jobs per year, and a return of $2.40 for every $1 invested.

“They're saying that in these cities, they are seeing hotel performance increase by almost 11 percent,” Hafkenschiel said. 

Those working on a similar effort in Nashville are particularly encouraged by statistics from Denver, which opened its first light rail line in 1994 and now boasts seven light-rail lines and 87.5 track miles overall.

Denver officials track transit-oriented development within a half-mile of the city's light rail lines each year and release a report. The numbers in the 2014 Transit-Oriented Development Status Report were incredible; Denver saw 5,000 new hotel rooms, 18,000 new housing units and 5 million square feet of new office space along those rail routes.

“Another great example of what can happen around infrastructure is Minneapolis, which also includes bus rapid transit and light rail," said Pete Wooten, vice chair of Moving Forward, Nashville's transit initiative. "We observed very attractive new commercial and residential development and redevelopment occurring around a dedicated bus rapid transit corridor, accommodating new businesses and residents.”

Wooten also mentioned Salt Lake City and Vancouver, B.C., as cities poised for substantial transit-related growth.

On the fast track

Hafkenschiel reassured Crain’s Nashville that, although you won’t be able to take a light rail to work next week, those on the team are taking timeliness lessons from other cities.

“There are lots of examples of other cities where oftentimes there can be about 10 years between when a transit referendum passes and when the first light rail line opens. I hope we can speed that process up," she said. "However, it's definitely not something that will happen tomorrow, and we still have to go through pre-design, design and construction,” she said.

Anyone who's driven downtown recently knows that a mass transit solution is desperately needed for commuters. Nashville is simply at capacity in most cases, and at overcapacity in some key spots.

“We have about 60,000 people who come into downtown every day for work, and that's about our capacity for people to be coming in  single-occupancy vehicles. Employers are more and more relocating back to downtown, and in doing that they really want to see an investment in transit,” Hafkenschiel admitted.

Planning and development process

In the recently released High Capacity Transit Briefing Book, Nashville MTA has identified a series of steps to complete the highly ambitious transit plan, with an early focus on getting people into the downtown area utilizing high-capacity transit routed along existing highway travel corridors. Officials are assessing the feasibility of the various routes based on potential problems posed to light rail rights-of-way, conflicts with existing heavy rail lines, topographical issues, private property rights, commuter parking availability and a host of other potential obstacles. 

The briefing book highlights the four nMotion corridors projected for high-capacity light rail: Charlotte Avenue, Gallatin Pike, Murfreesboro Pike, and Nolensville Pike. A fifth corridor, Dickerson Pike, is pegged for bus rapid transit. Two other corridors – namely the Northwest Corridor from Nashville to Clarksville, and the existing Music City Star rail line between downtown Nashville and Clarksville – are not covered in the briefing document. The overall development is taking place in five steps:

  • Strategic planning (already completed)
  • Feasibility assessment (underway now)
  • Pre-design 
  • Design
  • Project delivery.

“If we don't get moving now, it's not like that 10-year time window gets any shorter. It's only going to get longer and more expensive,” Hafkenschiel said.

September 11, 2017 - 1:25pm