So, what would you do to fix traffic in the region?
Currently, it can feel daunting and maybe even a little hopeless—like we will never get there—to look at the proposed $5.4 billion transit plan in Nashville.
By far, the most expensive component of the plan everyone is talking about is a light rail system and tunnel under downtown Nashville. Proponents argue this is the base of a network needed to present options for connection to the city, enabling surrounding counties to follow suit. If the sales tax proposal gets voter approval, Davidson County gets bus service improvements first. It will be five years before the rail systems starts to come online — serving only Davidson County. There is no obvious consensus that any surrounding county will actually connect to a light rail.
Government is often criticized for both its inefficiency and lack of willingness to take risks. Many argue the role of government includes enabling big projects that the private sector would not be able to finance—projects like mass transit. While Nashville’s (hopefully regional) mass transit plan is generating buzz with thought leaders, it’s not clear this is the answer to a growing traffic problem.
The plan bravely championed by Mayor Megan Barry has faced criticism for not addressing the short-term reality of traffic on one hand, and a concern that light rail is an outlandishly expensive and obsolete option for mobility on the other hand. So when someone offers critique, shouldn’t they be willing to offer a better solution to the problem?
We asked a successful local entrepreneur with no economic interest in transit and a Vanderbilt economics professor who has studied transit for their takes on what is now being done and if they have a better idea of how to address traffic, they say… damn right I do.
They were Malcom Getz, with Vanderbilt, and Jackson Miller, the founder of a software company and owner of three Plato’s Closet locations in the region. Both were critical of the current Nashville plan and the region’s actions at large.
Two issues emerged.
The first is that the transit plan does not address the right issue, at its most basic level. That issue is a traffic problem, said Vanderbilt economist Malcolm Getz, caused by the hundreds of thousands of people commuting from one county to another every day. For the Nashville transit plan to be cost justifiable, most commuters would still have to drive for most of their commute, then park and ride a train or bus the rest of the way. Is this about commuting to work?
“The current commute with the current mass transit plan looks like a drive to a long ride on a bus to a transfer, to a train ride to a walk to get to where you want to go,” Miller said. He agreed with Getz in that current planning does not seem to address what most people think of as the “problem” with traffic.
That might be mitigated by a regional transit system, but this is something Getz is not optimistic about being realized. Which is the second problem: planning.
Seattle, Denver and Portland all built successful transit systems that mitigated traffic, Getz said. All have been highlighted by various advocates as a model for the Nashville region to follow. What they have in common is that they created a multi-county regional plan before the word go, unlike the middle Tennessee region, which so far has the Davidson County plan – seemingly going it alone. The practical argument you hear is that light rail might not be the best solution for Williamson County, or Sumner County, for example.
“I do not see Williamson County voters, for instance, voting to raise taxes for a light rail transit solution,” he said. Getz argues that, besides this, the plan put forth by Davidson County, is a really expensive, really poor plan for addressing the real cause of traffic.
Williamson County, it seems, is leaning strongly toward a bus rapid transit plan and leaders have said little about light rail, much unlike the Nashville plan.
Miller takes issue more with the paradigm of the plan, which he feels does not account for changes fast coming in transportation, like automated cars and ride-sharing services.
“The problem is with planning so far out— there is no flexibility, rider behavior is moving quickly away from the system of set routes at set times, everything is on demand and a successful plan will be about connecting people at any time who want to move in the same direction, and also progress in increments to allow for unknown changes that are coming,” he said.
Getz wants us to look at what is right in front of us, also, but in a more concrete way.
A much cheaper, much simpler and already essentially constructed route to reducing traffic is right in front of us already: the HOV lane, which could be expanded and turned into an express lane—one which is set off by some simple barrier. Buses, carpoolers, vanpools, and ridesharing companies in the private sector could all utilize such lanes.
“It is a successful strategy that has been proven to work in cities across the country,” Getz said.
His vision of a solution to the traffic problem is a toll road, essentially a tax on those who wish to move much faster to work.
“It both incentivizes ride sharing or riding on buses, which reduces the cost per rider, and creates revenue that will pay its construction and maintenance costs, without requiring raising taxes, or at least certainly not requiring the tax increases proposed by the current transit plan,” Getz said.
Traffic in cities that have express lanes, such as I-85 in Atlanta which is a converted HOV lane, move at an average of more than 50 miles per hour during rush hour.
Express lanes also provide opportunities for economic innovation, in for example being open at the same time to public buses, ride-sharing run carpoolers and private vanpools, Getz said.
“And service can evolve and develop over time. Imagine subscription buses, from Murfreesboro to Nashville or from Franklin to Nashville that could move readily in express lanes by converting HOV lanes.”
He emphasizes the lower cost—light rail costs about $35 million per mile to construct. An express lane costs $12 million per mile, while adding an additional regular or HOV lane costs from $1 million to $8.2 million per mile, Getz said. He imagines variable toll pricing. In California a dollar per mile is about average during rush hour; in Austin, which has recently added such lanes, tolls are about $0.50 per mile during rush hour.
“Innovation happens not by doing everything up front. What can we do right now that does not cost $5 billion to make an impact? ” he asked. “If you look at the market now, you see that more people are routinely ride-sharing than are using public transit, and that tells me ridesharing is what people want.”
Jackson believes, especially with the upcoming changes like autonomous vehicles and apps, the way people get around is changing in a way that traditional public transit does not address or anticipate.
“Yes, we’re planning a decade or two ahead, but if we do things the way they are being done, it means we are likely to build a system that no one ends up using,” Miller said.
He said if he were designing a system, he would follow what people are already using, and not commit so far ahead, given the fast changes to technology.