Curious Nashville: Even More Answers To Your Transit Referendum Questions | Nashville Public Radio

Curious Nashville: Even More Answers To Your Transit Referendum Questions

Apr 9, 2018

Your Nashville transit referendum questions have poured in to WPLN this month, and on the eve of early voting beginning Wednesday, here are answers to another batch.

This is a continuation of our first round of Q&A, and we’re continuing with the numbering system. 

Several questions are also addressed in WPLN’s ongoing coverage at wpln.org/transit.

Many Ask: What Happens If The Referendum Fails?

In WPLN’s first round of transit answers, the leading question had to do with the flexibility of the referendum, and how it will be implemented. A similar number of people have since asked a version of this question:

12. What happens if the referendum fails? Do we go back to the drawing board? Could a less expensive plan be voted on in the near future?

This question tends to take on political overtones. Referendum supporters tend to believe that a failed referendum would mean a multi-year wait before anything of similar scope would be brought back to voters. But referendum opponents call that a worst-case-scenario scare tactic that tries to push taxpayers into saying yes to the current plan.

The Tennessean recently interviewed several leaders and detailed what has happened in other cities that voted down transit funding; the Nashville Business Journal did so as well, here.

That reporting shows that Atlanta had a four-year gap between votes and that Austin and Seattle had six-year gaps after initial “no” votes on funding.

According to the state IMPROVE Act, Nashville would have to wait at least a year before it could seek to raise the six types of transit tax increases authorized by that act. (A referendum built around a property tax increase would not be subject to such a wait.)

In WPLN interviews, Erin Hafkenschiel, the mayor’s top advisor on transportation, estimated a wait of at least four years. Like other speculations, that’s informed in part by uncertainty around who will be mayor, as there is a special election coming this year, followed by a regularly scheduled election in August 2019.

Opponents to this referendum have suggested alternatives that use different funding strategies, and tilted toward bus service, and argue that such a proposal could come quickly.

It’s worth recalling that when the Metro Transit Authority conducted its multi-year nMotion study and plan, officials mapped out three possibilities — and that the second-tier option was bus-centric.

Councilwoman Angie Henderson has called attention to nMotion, and the quantity of study that could be salvaged if the referendum falls:

Research by the MTA, the Metro Planning Department and the regional Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) have tended to be in close sync in terms of the corridors that most need — and that would most support — robust transit.

13. Will elements of the plan be able to be put in place even if the vote is no (extended/additional bus routes, for example)?

WPLN took this related version of this question to MTA Executive Director Steve Bland.

If the referendum fails, “you won’t see a large change in what I’ll call the ‘quantity’ of transit service you have,” Bland said, noting, “not getting bigger is no excuse for not getting better.”

The MTA would still continue to do what it does now and could ask for additional government funding from Metro each year, and in doing that, would continue to jockey with other departments for a share, Bland said.

Without the referendum vote, the MTA would not be given the massive influx of funding dedicated to transit that would be generated by new tax revenues (which also support the issuing of bonds).

“I think I’m probably smart enough not to go to the mayor and council next year and say, ‘You know, can I have several hundred million to start a light rail line?’ ” Bland said.  

On other fronts, the MTA has made some of the changes proposed in 2016’s nMotion plan.

The agency has slowly extended hours and increased frequency on some busy routes. Those kinds of changes wouldn’t roll back if the referendum were to fail.

More: To view WPLN stories about recent MTA projects, visit our transportation page.

The MTA says that some other improvements are already in the works and will happen regardless of the vote:

  • Music City Central, the main downtown station, is getting improvements
  • the launch of a new fare system that allows payments with smartphones, and that also allows riders to get a “card” on which they can store money
  • new buses and vehicles have been ordered

14. Why haven’t we started with the easy fixes, like eliminating parking on main streets and letting buses use the curb lane?     

There has not been a formal movement to eliminate parking — although that recommendation has been contemplated in a study by the MPO.

As far as buses using curb lanes, an element of this idea — “queue jumping” — is coming to Murfreesboro Road bus service. And allowing buses to use freeway shoulders has been considered, including at the state level, but has not advanced.

Metro Public Works, meanwhile, has re-timed traffic signals.

Backers of the proposal argue that their plan does begin with faster, easier fixes — the bus service enhancements — while also putting light rail planning in motion.

15. Can we do everything BUT the tunnel?

For this referendum, no.

The plan couples together a specific funding method and distributes the money to the proposal that Metro spells out in its 55-page plan. Metro’s discussion of a tunnel appears on pages 27-28, along with references throughout. (WPLN addresses the flexibility of the plan in its first Q&A.)

What Led To This Vote?

There’s been some confusion about the work that preceded the transit proposal that is going to voters — including what research and community engagement went into it. The answer traces back to 2012 and follows an overhaul of several of Metro’s key documents that guide growth and policy, including NashvilleNext, nMotion, Walk ‘n’ Bike and Plan To Play.

These thousands of pages, informed by dozens of studies and hundreds of meetings, interlock as Metro attempts to shape the future growth that is expected from an influx of residents. Taken together, the plans guide the future of everything from sidewalks to parks to bridges to development patterns to rural land preservation.

But that mass of material is daunting.

Most directly, the MTA’s nMotion work leads to the referendum proposal.

16. What other forms of mass transit did the city consider, and what made the council decide this was the best way forward?

The nMotion process tapped transportation experts and carried out nearly two dozen studies, ranging from allowing city buses to drive on interstate shoulders (story here), to streetcars, to the role of ride-hailing and autonomous vehicles (WPLN story here and Tennessean story here).

(Autonomous vehicles also occupy one chapter in the University of Tennessee tax revenue forecast that informs the financial strategy of Metro’s plan, beginning on page 101.)

Ultimately, nMotion distilled its work into three scenarios. One, referred to as “business as usual,” would keep the MTA and RTA functioning as they currently do. The second tier option was described as bus-centric improvements. And the third tier, or “comprehensive,” included the kind of mix of rapid bus and light rail service that ultimately appears in the current referendum.

The proposal going to voters closely follows the most-ambitious option in nMotion, with some key differences — in that it only takes up the Davidson County portion and only the first 15 years of the 25-year vision.

“It’s a recognition that you can’t do everything at once,” Bland said.

WPLN will soon delve further into how nMotion differs from the current referendum, and Metro has provided its own description in this FAQ.

To address the second portion of the above question, it is worth noting that the Metro Council has not formally adopted the transportation proposal, but did agreed to send this plan to the voters. Individual council members would still be casting their personal votes come May 1.

17. How realistic are the alternative plans that call for double-decker interstates or taking over CSX rail lines / Radnor Yards?

The most rigorously considered alternative has been commuter rail on CSX lines — which differs from light rail in that it typically operates longer distances and uses existing (or abandoned) freight rail lines. The region’s current example is the Music City Star, which would eventually see more funding and daily trips, in 2031, if the referendum were to pass.

But research done with nMotion concluded that an expansion would be “extremely difficult,” in large part because the existing CSX freight lines are near capacity and difficult to share between freight and commuter trains.

WPLN detailed the region’s best hope for new commuter rail, between Nashville and Clarksville, but that possibility is not currently being advanced. The proposal going to voters includes a light rail line into North Nashville, where the final stop would allow a transfer onto a potential future commuter line to the northwest.

One piece of the commuter rail discussion is the idea of relocating the Radnor Yard freight train hub out of South Nashville. That was described as a process that would take more than a decade in this WPLN report.

Other alternatives are being outlined by opponents to the referendum, including a coordinated vanpool system. And Metro Councilman Robert Swope is anticipated to reveal an alternative on Tuesday.

Road widening has also been contemplated. A prior Tennessee Department of Transportation study did investigate a widening of Interstate 24, finding a possible cost of up to $1 billion.

18. Where can I find the studies that were used in formulating this plan?

Several planning processes inform the referendum, including NashvilleNext (which plans for population, demographics, growth and development) and nMotion (transportation planning).

One other data point in the new proposal is its use of the federal STOPS method for projecting ridership. This is a method that cities use when applying for federal funds.

Page 15 of the plan shows how Nashville projections compare to cities like Denver, Charlotte and Seattle.

This chart uses a federal ridership estimator to project the average weekday boardings of Nashville's proposed system.
Credit LetsMoveNashville.com

Hafkenschiel, with the mayor's office, said Nashville’s calculation was boosted by the city’s job density, the number of residents who would live within a half-mile of the high-capacity light rail and rapid bus service lines and because of the proposed level of service — its frequency and relatively small number of stops.

“The STOPS model is pretty conservative. The vast majority of the light rail projects that have opened in the last 5 to 10 years have far exceeded their STOPS model projections,” she said. “One of the reasons that is the case is that the STOPS model doesn’t take into account any opportunities for transit-oriented development along the corridors. It just assumes the sort of natural growth of population that you have there today.”

Financing The Plan

WPLN will soon air and publish a deeper dive into the proposal’s financing plan, but answers to some smaller questions are close at hand.

19. Is there an alternative way to pay for this? I agree with the plan, but I don’t like that it increases the cost of living.

This referendum would pay for transit by a combination of increasing four taxes, issuing bonds, seeking federal funds and loans, contributions from the convention center and the airport, and farebox revenues from riders.

In terms of the scale of a plan such as this one, Rich Riebeling, Metro’s Chief Operating Officer, said that only a sales tax or property tax increase could not generate “anywhere near the amount of money you need.”

Riebeling said Metro chose the sales tax in large part because the state’s IMPROVE Act authorized sales tax — but not property tax — to be raised as a dedicated funding stream for transit projects, and because a share of sales tax is paid by people other than Davidson county residents, including tourists.

20. Will we have an income tax passed to pay for this?

No.

21. Will the money needed include the cost of maintaining the system and personnel?

Yes, the plan accounts for operations and maintenance costs, accounting for roughly 10 percent ($934 million) of the first 15 years of the budget. The methodology for estimating these costs are on pages 32-36

22. I’m curious about financing details. Who exactly profits from the budget going toward financial products / fees?

Metro estimates that paying fees to financial firms to offer bonds will not exceed 1 percent of the budget and writes that “no commitments have been made to any financial firms about the work of financing the plan.”

23. Is it true that Goldman Sachs helped write the plan, and will facilitate (i.e. profit from) the issuance of those bonds?

Goldman Sachs was involved in writing the financing models in the plan and has a contract to be paid no more than $100,000 for that work. The company is not, as of now, involved in issuing the bonds.

“No commitments have been made to them about the bond issue or any other future work,” a mayor’s spokesman wrote in response to WPLN.

An additional memo provided to members of the council’s budget and finance committee states that Goldman Sachs has not recused itself from future work, and that Metro’s existing financial advisor, Hilltop Securities, will remain in place to give advice.

More Questions About How The System Would Operate

24. What are the first changes we would see should the transit plan pass. How soon would changes take effect?

If the plan passes, extended bus hours could begin as soon as October, according to Bland, with the MTA. He said increased training of bus drivers is underway. Changes to AccessRide, which is the door-to-door service offered to disabled and elderly riders, would also be enacted by the end of the year, he said.

WPLN has detailed other early changes in this story.

25. I have read details of transit failures. Are there any cities where light rail is doing well? Is there a city similar in size and challenges that has already put into place a similar plan?

There are many national stories that delve into light rail, its funding and its ridership. Locally, the Nashville Business Journal examined the experiences in Atlanta, Charlotte, Raleigh and Austin.

The MTA’s nMotion report on light rail is instructive. It provides case studies on Salt Lake City, Denver, Charlotte and Minneapolis.

“There’s been an excellent track record,” said Bland, with the MTA. He also pointed to Seattle, Dallas, San Diego and Boston, when asked this question.

Metro also looked to other cities for ideas about constructing light rail, including how to overcome engineering hurdles.

26. Please address the chokepoints along the light rail route. How will the roads be widened at an intersection such as Gallatin Road and Eastland in East Nashville?

As referenced in WPLN’s prior Q&A, Metro analyzed the feasibility of light rail in the proposed corridors and published results in August 2017.

The report provides a scale for how easy or difficult construction would be along the routes, and marks the Gallatin and Eastland area as a “moderate” challenge.

“It would be possible to implement light rail in this segment with minimal additional right-of-way by reducing all corridor elements to minimum widths,” that report states.

A preliminary mock-up of this intersection shows much more narrow sidewalks, as well as skinny traffic lanes on either side of the rail. The following generic diagram also shows the minimum dimensions:

This diagram, part of nMotion, shows the minimum width needed at a light rail station.
Credit nMotion.info

Hafkenschiel said Metro doesn’t “want to be taking buildings down. And so we’re not going to need to be doing that along these corridors.”

Yet more specific design and engineering work has not been completed.

When pressed — no buildings down or few buildings down in the interest of light rail? — Hafkenschiel answered: “I just don’t think we know that yet, but there weren’t any chokepoints identified that really had us worried.”

27. How will Charlotte Pike be widened for the light rail system? Will we lose our cherry blossoms near the Richland Park Library?

Similar to the above question, there’s not yet a detailed answer to this level of specificity. A preliminary rendering in the prior study shows the trees intact, but that’s far from binding.

28. I live at the end of the Charlotte light rail stop. How big will the station be, and what will it look like? Where will people park?

This level of specificity is not yet known, although a city memo recently detailed by the Nashville Business Journal includes one possibility. The map shows the final Charlotte light rail stop could be at the corner of Charlotte and White Bridge Road, with parking.

29. The Music City Star is hampered by having very limited runs — just for the morning and the evening commute. Will this be expanded?

Yes, the proposal calls for longer hours of service (5 a.m. to 11 p.m.) and a peak frequency of service every 40 minutes at times. However, those changes are deep into the schedule, marked for completion in 2031.