Curious Nashville: One Last Batch Of Transit Plan Answers | Nashville Public Radio

Curious Nashville: One Last Batch Of Transit Plan Answers

Apr 27, 2018

Still undecided on Nashville’s transit plan? Planning to spend the weekend studying up before Election Day on Tuesday? Your questions have informed much of WPLN’s coverage —  wpln.org/transit — and a final set of answers to your submitted questions follows below.

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

Tunnel Logistics

The much-discussed 1.8-mile tunnel for trains and buses, proposed for downtown Nashville, has drawn a raft of questions. The following answers are informed by the city’s 55-page plan (page 27) and additional information from HDR, the Kentucky-based civil engineering firm that authored the plan.

30. Could the proposed downtown transit tunnel flood?

Flooding could never be fully ruled out, but Metro and HDR say the tunnel is secure. The portals would be above the flood zone from May of 2010, the tunnels themselves are water-proofed and pumps would be used if needed.

“Waterproofing and drainage would also be installed to manage any water in the tunnel,” said Jim Czarnecky, with HDR. “While flood prevention and resiliency will be part of the tunnel design, certain extreme events such as [hurricanes] Katrina and Sandy may still cause flooding.”

31. What happens if the downtown tunnel is determined to be infeasible due to greater risk and/or costs?

Metro says enough preliminary feasibility work leaves officials “confident in the tunnel component,” although more detailed geotechnical, hydraulic, utility and foundation information would still be gathered, and several design options considered.

In a worst-case scenario, Czarnecky said, “the decision-makers may want to further explore surface or elevated light rail solutions.”

More Financing Queries

Several finance answers appear in the second Q&A, but others have come in.

32. What if the proposed federal grant funding falls through?

There are several types of federal funding built into the financing portion of Nashville’s plan (WPLN provided details here).

Two Metro officials — Rich Riebeling and Erin Hafkenschiel — responded to the above question and the city has a video answer below.

The city has high confidence in the federal funding, largely because Nashville does not plan to request anywhere near the maximum amounts allowable — and because of the popularity, at the U.S. Congress, of these transportation funds.

All of that said, in the scenario that the federal funding falls through, Nashville would definitely need to alter its plan. A few options are possible: the city could alter its financing program and could extend out the construction completion timelines.

If the budget is very far off, there is also the option to amend the transit plan and eliminate some portions. (We included this info in our first Q&A.)

33. I keep seeing how the transit taxes will be on the backs of Nashville small businesses. I am curious how much it will cost small businesses?

The plan asks voters to approve four tax increases: the local sales tax, hotel occupancy tax, business tax and local rental car tax. These are detailed on pages 39-43.

The business tax would increase by 20 percent.

As of now, the average business in Davidson County pays $1,673 per year, and the increase would mean an addition of a bit more than $200.

In terms of how much money the taxes generate, the sales tax increase could bring in $100 to $320 million each year, whereas a business tax increase would generate $7 to $10 million each year.

34. If this initiative passes how many new jobs will be created?

Pages 7 and 8 of the city's plan estimate that for the first 15 years, during construction of the system, almost 45,000 annual jobs would be created (define as full-time and part-time jobs that last at least 1 year).

And Metro published a video answer from Ashford Hughes, chief officer of diversity, equity and inclusion:

Metro’s figures have been criticized by referendum opponent Malcom Getz, an associate professor of economics at Vanderbilt University.

He argues that some amount of employment gains would be offset by decreased consumer and business spending that could follow the increase in local taxes, and that Nashville already has strong employment numbers.

“Pulling more employers and employees into Nashville from elsewhere will tend to increase real estate values and increase the cost of living here,” Getz writes. “The added workers will come from somewhere else.”

A Prevalent Question

In collecting questions for several weeks, a few surfaced as the most-asked. In the first Q&A, WPLN discussed how flexible or “set in stone” the transit plan would be, and in the second, a big question had to do with what Nashville would do if the referendum fails.

Next on the list of frequently submitted questions was one about who the system would benefit, which will be addressed below and in a forthcoming story this weekend.

35. Who does this plan help the most? Developers? Tourists? Businesses? Residents? People who already depend on mass transit? Low-income people?

This question gets to the heart of one of the biggest debates on Metro’s plan. In addition to the groups above, there have been arguments about which geographic areas would most benefit.

There’s a wide divide between the competing sides.

We’ll begin with the referendum critics and, below, turn to Metro’s research.

Opposition group No Tax For Tracks has largely built its message around telling certain groups — whether geographic pockets, or senior citizens — that they won’t benefit.

“When I talk to people across the county, I see people who say, ‘I don’t have any benefit,’” said jeff obafemi carr, a senior advisor for the group who spells his name in lowercase. “We look at Bordeaux, we look at Bellevue, we look at Southeast and Antioch. We look at Green Hills … and you have people saying, ‘I’m going to get the bus and the bills and everybody else is going to get the trains downtown.’”

This perspective has been adopted by some voters who spoke with WPLN at the polls during early voting.

“The area where it’ll really help, I don’t think it’d be in our area,” Hermitage voter Sam Minton said.

In carr’s framework, the list of direct beneficiaries would be architects, property owners along transit lines, developers, construction companies, lawyers and other government contractors.

In sharp contrast, Metro officials say their studies show across-the-board benefits for current transit riders, would-be transit riders, low-income families, businesses and visitors (plan pages 6 through 9).

Here’s what Metro says in a supplemental memo about accessibility and benefits:

Longer hours and higher frequency would result in more efficient service to more people. With improved service, residents will have the ability to access a variety of important community destinations, such as jobs, with greater ease. In addition to heightened accessibility, annual cost savings would accrue to those switching travel modes since transit has a lower out-of-pocket cost than personal vehicles. These cost savings are estimated to amount to $7,808 per person annually.

Erin Hafkenschiel, director of transportation in the mayor’s office, expounds on this premise.

“We’re (currently) seriously underserving the people that need this the most, and we absolutely need a bus service that serves them more,” she said. “That population in particular, that is probably even more burdened by having to have car-based transportation system … will be better served by this system.”

Metro has also studied Nashville’s demographics, and finds that 88 percent of impoverished households and 90 percent of households that do not own a car are located within a half-mile of proposed transit service.

This table shows the demographics of certain populations that would be within a half-mile of transit service.

The same memo found that “nearly 30 percent more jobs will be accessible within a 30-minute travel time” under the plan.

It’s clear that existing MTA riders would get substantial service improvements — with frequency, longer hours and new crosstown routes in the first few years. And riders who are seniors, or below the poverty line, would ride for free (plan pages 7 and 23).

“You name it, you benefit,” said Steve Bland, CEO of the MTA. “Folks who rely on our system today — whether they don’t have access to an automobile, or downtown Nashville employees, the occasional users, the special-event users.”

In contrast to the Hermitage voter above, neighbor Viv Pocek, who does ride buses and the Music City Star, said the current transit system “needs help” and would get that through this plan.

“If somebody says, ‘I have a car, I don’t need transit,’ I say, ‘Well good for you, how about the rest of us?’ ” she said. “Not everybody owns a car, and not everybody who owns a car wants to drive it on I-40.”

Yet another tussle comes from another viewpoint, concerning gentrification.

Austin Sauerbrei, an advocate with Homes For All and the PATHE Coalition, an equity advocacy group, worries that a transit-related development boom will accelerate gentrification, causing “mass displacement.”

“When we’re talking about building new development on these corridors, the target market is those who can pay that $1,200 to $1,400 in rent, and that is not reflective of the thousands of folks in this city that are the construction workers, that are the service workers, that are the teachers that can’t afford that rent,” he said.

In contrast, Metro Councilman Bob Mendes — who asked hard questions of the plan before endorsing it — said the plan would “benefit a broad range of current residents.”

“Medium and lower-income people clearly benefit from the greater access all around the city through rail and bus lines with greater frequency,” he said. “There’s just no question that that’s a benefit.”

A Few Last Loose Ends

WPLN will have answered close to 60 questions about transit (some have been combined for clarity in these Q&As), and some aren’t easily categorized — or have required winding paths to reach an answer.

36. Have they given any thought to staggering work hours so everyone is not on the roads at the same time?

The short answer is yes. Staggered work hours could reduce rush hour congestion, and is one tactic in a broader batch of ideas known as “travel demand management.”

“It is a good idea,” said Michelle Lacewell, executive director of the regional Metropolitan Planning Organization. “The longer conversation is how that is actually implemented.”

Unlike road projects, or transit systems, encouraging staggered work hours would rely heavily on voluntary cooperation in the private sector.

Lacewell said surveys of local businesses have found them willing to allow flexible work hours.

“Things are allowed in a policy manual, versus things that are encouraged, are totally different,” Lacewell said.

The city of Nashville has received an MPO grant to study travel demand management, and ideas from other cities are being considered — including how employers might offer incentives to employees to use transit or to live close to work.

38. nMotion’s plan from circa 2016 had a bus planned along Woodmont to White Bridge. But not the new plan. Why not?

The MTA responded to this question, citing low demand for this suggested route, compared to the other crosstown buses that made it into the Metro plan.

“As Let’s Move Nashville is considered the first phase in building a greater transit network, all potential crosstown connectors identified in nMotion are certainly up for future consideration,” an MTA spokeswoman said.

39. Transit opponents point to the price tag. What would be the cost of building and maintaining roads for the same time?

This question, while pointed in its phrasing, was too enticing to pass up.

But first, some caveats. Such a comparison is fraught.

Voters on May 1 are not choosing between transit and roadwork — which would be funded in different ways. (And some portions of the transit plan would be spent overhauling roadways on the rapid bus and light rail corridors.)

The road dollars discussed below are likely to be spent regardless of the referendum vote.

The second caveat is that there is not an available comparison for the cost of expanding roads sufficiently to match the capacity of mass transit. The estimates are based on maintenance of a status quo road network.

So to begin with, from the perspective of the Tennessee Department of Transportation, a major expansion to the region’s interstates is not likely.

“These interstates are not going to get wider,” TDOT spokeswoman BJ Doughty told WPLN. “We can’t afford to buy the property … it is not uncommon for us now to have projects here and there where the land costs more than the construction.”

Other than a few stretches of I-65 or I-24, the state doesn’t anticipate widening interstates, and even then, “widening interstates is not a solution to moving greater amounts of people,” Doughty said.

Nevertheless, WPLN gathered estimates from TDOT and Metro Public Works in pursuit of this answer.

TDOT says it has spent an average of $107 million per year in Davidson County — approximately half for repaving and maintenance, and half for large capital projects. Over 15 years, not accounting for inflation, that would conservatively put TDOT spending on Nashville state highways and interstates at more than $1.6 billion.

And if local conditions continue as they have, Metro Public Works estimates spending $1.2 billion in the next 15 years, “a very conservative estimate,” said spokeswoman Cortnye Stone.

So — with all the caveats in mind — in the 15 years that Nashville may or may not be constructing a $5.4 billion transit network, spending to maintain Nashville roadways will likely top $3.8 billion.