Is the Traffic Solution Right in Front of Us?


What is the best way to manage amazing growth and unbearable traffic in Middle Tennessee? The debate between more taxes and market forces is starting to take shape.

Marketing slogans promoting bus improvements, a tunnel under the city and a light rail solution with a $5.4 billion dollar price tag — point to cars as the boogeyman. Formal opposition to these ideas has not yet organized. Advocates for market forces being superior to tax increases and government spending point to a fast-changing technology landscape as a significant risk. The question of how to address traffic directly is starting to take center stage.

This is starting to look like a three-way debate that pits powerful interests for higher taxes and trains against the idea of tolls and technology, facing off with a third contestant – the idea that we should embrace and better use existing resources like HOV lanes, paired with park-n-rides and rapid bus service.

The “Trains and Taxes” team is getting much of the press – mostly pro and some con. The technology argument is primarily focused on autonomous vehicles and questions about how soon that solution will deliver relief. Fast advancing technology is closely paired with ideas to improve traffic flow, from investing in new intersection stop light systems to ideas about better lane management. Managing and incentivizing demand is the core issue. Enter the topic of toll systems. Toll systems rely on technology to improve traffic flow and manage demand.

We talked to three experts on traffic, transit and possible solutions.

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What the Future of Williamson County Traffic Looks Like

Reducing Congestion in Nashville

The idea of toll roads and technology is argued and promoted by Vanderbilt economics professor Malcolm Getz, who has been a harsh critic of the current transit plan for Nashville. And there is the idea of incentivizing the behavior, enforcing existing things like HOV laws and creating park-n-rides, as entrepreneur Mark Cleveland sees it. He is creating a ride-sharing app, and sees the solution as a combination of carrots-and-sticks with mayors and the governor prioritizing proper enforcement to create the incentive – and cash rewards to get people’s attention. There also is the education and enforcement angle taken by police, like Lt. Mike Gilliland of the Special Operations Division- Traffic Section. He heads up all traffic operations by Metro Nashville Police.  He said that if traffic is going to change it will take a big policy solution, such as the transit plan, paired with enforcement by police and education by local leaders.

Gilliland is in charge of enforcing traffic laws in the metro Nashville area. He said as it stands now, police have limited resources.

The Metro Nashville PD wrote 123 HOV citations last year, which he said that does not represent warnings and other education opportunities. Something like signs, or increased fines could help. Another simple deterrence strategy could help — like setting a patrol car up at safe locations for writing citations for HOV violations, the same way a patrol car parked at a “speed trap” slows the flow and helps keep speeders from actually speeding. Gilliland did say, however, that given the limited manpower and lack of priority put on HOV enforcement, current efforts are not having great results.

These are all end-result things. But for them to happen, he needs marching orders.

“It would take a change in policy from political leaders or additional officers to truly make an impact,” he said.

Cleveland agrees, though he thinks the transit plan and the tolls and technology route ignore an obvious solution.

“It would take a revolution,” explains Mark Cleveland, Nashville’s 2014 Entrepreneur of the Year. “Toll lanes are not legal in Tennessee, automated enforcement systems and video cameras are not legal in Tennessee.”

More on that in part two, coming soon.

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