State Interference in Nashville BRT Could Have National Implications

Annie Weinstock is the regional director for the U.S. and Africa at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy.

Nashville's BRT project, the Amp, would devote a small amount of this asphalt to transit. Photo: ITDP
Nashville’s BRT project, the Amp, would devote a small amount of this asphalt to transit. Photo: ##http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nashville,_Tennessee##Wikimedia##

Last week saw the quiet death of the misguided, Koch brothers-funded Tennessee Senate Bill 2243, which would have effectively banned real bus rapid transit in Tennessee. The Senate’s outrageous overreach, attempting to prohibit transit from using dedicated lanes, was conferenced with a far milder House bill, and the compromise allows the use of separate lanes — including the center-running transit lanes the Amp BRT project intends to use. However, the bill requires such projects to get approval from the state legislature, even if they don’t use any state funding.

The compromise deal still spells trouble for the 7.1-mile Amp BRT line, but it sets a far less dangerous precedent than the Senate bill. The Senate’s version, one of the most anti-mass transit pieces of legislation in recent memory, would have hurt Nashville and other Tennessee cities environmentally, socially, and economically.

-Cleveland’s HealthLine BRT, a median-aligned silver-standard corridor on Euclid Avenue, has leveraged 5.8 billion in development, while the city’s contribution to the project was only 200 million. Photo: ITDP
Cleveland’s HealthLine BRT, a median-aligned silver-standard corridor on Euclid Avenue, has leveraged $5.8 billion in development, while the total cost of the project was only $200 million. Photo: ITDP

But even though the Senate bill did not fully succeed, this coordinated attack on high quality transit could still have national implications. When the Tennessee Senate first took up the bill, it raised eyebrows nationally for its unusually specific prohibition on “any bus rapid transit system using a separate lane, or other separate right-of-way, dedicated solely to the use of such bus rapid transit system.” Such a direct attack on BRT from a state authority is unprecedented, and is a clear threat to the ability of one of Tennessee’s major cities to remain competitive.

The U.S. is still woefully behind European, Asian, and Latin American cities in building modern and efficient transport innovations such as BRT and bike-share. In the past decade, U.S. cities have finally been waking up to the fact that in order to be modern and economically competitive, they have to make their transportation systems cleaner, more attractive, and more efficient. With much of the electorate opposed to increased taxation, cost-effective BRT represents one of the few areas where the U.S. has made progress.

When done right, BRT can deliver the speed, comfort, and capacity of a rail-based system, at a fraction of the cost and time that a metro or light rail requires. While true BRT includes many components, one of the most essential is alignment in the median of the road. Without median alignment, the other essential elements, such as dedicated lanes and intersection treatments, are much less effective. A curb-aligned bus lane has to compete with parking cars, pedestrians, cyclists, delivery vehicles, and right-turning vehicles. Placing the busway in the center of the road avoids most of these conflicts and allows BRT vehicles to run much more smoothly. Banning median-aligned transit lanes, for BRT or LRT, ensures that any system created would bring far fewer benefits.

In Nashville, the Amp project’s 7.1 mile BRT corridor connecting downtown Nashville, Vanderbilt University, and the Five Points neighborhood in East Nashville, is largely supported by the community. Plans for the Amp rank as silver on The BRT Standard, an internationally recognized system for scoring BRT projects against the best BRTs around the world. As U.S. cities such as Cleveland and Las Vegas have discovered, a silver or bronze BRT can encourage investment and commerce along the corridor.

Eugene, Oregon's EmX Green Line leveraged about $100 million in investment. Photo: ITDP
Eugene, Oregon’s EmX Green Line leveraged about $100 million in investment. Photo: ITDP

BRT in the U.S. has bi-partisan appeal. Retired Republican Senator George Voinovich of Ohio, who had previously been governor of Ohio and mayor of Cleveland, was the political champion behind Cleveland’s HealthLine BRT. The conservative Reason Foundation has also been supportive of BRT. The recent efforts by the Koch Brothers signal an orchestrated attack not only on Nashville’s Democratic mayor, but also on pro-BRT Republicans.

It takes political courage to allocate road space for transit, especially in a city like Nashville, where most people are dependent on cars. It’s a sad statement that the only role the state could think to play in this effort was to undermine Nashville’s local sovereignty and promote heavy-handed government regulation to stifle city-led innovation.

Even in its weakened form, the Tennessee law threatens to block BRT in Nashville, setting a terrible precedent for every other state with cities planning BRT, or even light rail or streetcars. This bill, if copied by other states, could essentially halt this trend, sending U.S. cities spiraling back into the car-dependent 1960s while the rest of the world moves toward a more sustainable future less dependent on scarce oil reserves.

Elected officials should take a close look at what Cleveland’s BRT did for the Ohio economy before enacting similar bills in their states. Cleveland’s BRT helped to bring $5.8 billion into the city, a lot of which was new investment from outside the state. If the Koch brothers’ “Americans for Prosperity” is actually concerned with American prosperity, it should take note.

  • jamesbeaz

    Extreme cuts to Seattle transit? Effectively banning BRT in Tennessee unless the crazy legislators say it can go forward? The USA is digging its own grave — Europe, Latin America and Asia are laughing at us! And, pretty soon, as climate change becomes more real, they’re not going to tolerate this behavior any longer.

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    http://blog.cleveland.com/ent_impact_arts/2008/02/10cgEUCLID.pdf

    The Cleveland BRT opened in Oct 2008. If you look at the attached, to get the supposed $5.8 billion, they had to go back to 2000 and start counting. Furthermore, the area most in need of investment, Mid-town, 25% of that investment was from one project, the Regional Headquarters of Northeast Ohio Sewer District. Most of the money when to the University area, and the Hospitals were going to expand whether BRT happened or not.

    Look at most of the projects and they are taxpayer funded projects like the Botantical Gardens, Museums, and other public buildings like schools.

    So get it right, next time, because a bad argument is worse than no argument at all.

  • I agree that $5.8 billion is overstating the impact of the HealthLine, but it’s not as though the author here wrote that study. Regardless of the exact amount of development spurred by the BRT line, it’s likely that its benefits far outweighed its costs, and assuming even $1 billion in induced investment would be a huge win for the project. And although it’s clear that not ALL development was a result of BRT, I think it is fair to credit some pre-2008 projects to the HealthLine, at least in part. I’m sure they’d been planning it for many years, and even the expectation of this kind of transit resource can do a lot to spur new development.

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    Almost everyone who writes about the Cleveland BRT quotes this $5.8 Billion dollars and it is just wrong.

    I also get p’d when sports stadiums claim a new stadium will generate x amount of dollars in revenue. Truth is that dollar in the market place is going to get spent whether at the ball park or at the movie theater or chain store or casino.

    Yes, you can attribute some of this money, but since so many of these projects were public works projects and hospital projects, I don’t think its fair. Private dollars yes, but not all private dollars because some of that expansion was going to come anyway.

    Edit: Also, when these stories are written, no one put the source of the $5.8 million in their story. No attribution and wild exageration does not = a truthful representation.

  • Agreed on the point about attribution, and that writers should be a bit more circumspect in the use of that study (and many other studies like it). At the very least, qualifying the $5.8 billion number with an “up to” would be warranted.

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    http://www.metroplanning.org/news-events/blog-post/6828

    Here’s a post by Mary Sue Barrett President of Chicago Metropolitan Planning Council. Again she uses the mythical $5.8 Billion to support the Ashland BRT. She even goes so far to extrapolate a $114 to $1 invested/return and again no primary source has been used to support this. It’s certainly surprising that someone in her position would do this. But every time I see this number trotted out in support of BRT, I’ve never seen any documentation linking a study to support this figure. And every time it its used the myth just grows. Would you count the investment made by Marianos at Ashland and Webster as investment because of the proposed BRTon Ashland? I wouldn’t. Its a vast misrepresentation.

  • No_Kool_Aid_for_Me

    There is another story that the author of this article evidently doesn’t know about. The state legislation was used “scare” the mayor into creating an advisory board for input on this project. One of the biggest problems with this project was the mayor and lobbyists for this project proceeding without appropriate public input.

    Another thing, this project does is not largely supported by the community. The poll you mentioned was not scientific, and I can tell you that the STOPAMP signs outnumber the Amp YES about 20 to 1. Most of the people who live near the proposed route in West Nashville are against it. When this reaches the metro council for funding votes, most councilmen will vote against it: they see it as wasteful spending into the “rich” part town (with no benefit for their folks). And the rich folks will not use it.

    By the way, the area pictured (Lower Broad = the tourist area) does not even contain one bus right now. Why not run a regular bus through this area FIRST, to see what support for mass transit is in the area?

    Oh yeah, did you realize that St. Thomas hospital would be getting large capital improvements (including a parking garage) if this project passes? You liberals are being played by large corporations, because you don’t pay attention to details (and they know it!)

  • Nashville

    Only the third paragraph and first sentence of the last paragraph of this comment are true. if anyone was curious.

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