Nashville’s mass transit vote is fast-approaching. In the meantime, the Metro Transit Authority has been rolling out incremental improvements — and, so far, liking the results.
That was the message during Thursday’s budget presentation by MTA Chief Steve Bland.
His agency has received funding in recent years to run buses more frequently in places including Nolensville Pike and Jefferson Street.
Bland highlighted a 19 percent increase in ridership along Nolensville Pike, which expanded service 2 years ago, and a leap by more than 50 percent along Jefferson Street between downtown and Tennessee State University, which is now being served by the free and more frequent blue line of the Music City Circuit.
“Apart from the financial benefit that’s afforded to users of that service, with a free fare, it also allowed us to expand the hours and the frequency of service in that corridor,” Bland said of ridership along Jefferson.
Those increases are in contrast to a dip in overall MTA ridership the past two years, following a long run of gains. The agency attributes the decline to lower fuel costs for drivers, and says that the pockets seeing increases correlate to service improvements.
For another measurement — how often the buses are on-time — Bland reported a small improvement, from 84 percent on-time to 85.7 percent on-time.
“It doesn’t sound like a major accomplishment, but frankly when we face the same traffic challenges that all Nashvillians do, it becomes increasingly difficult day to day,” he said.
Routes that enter downtown or rely on interstates are the most unpredictable because of traffic, Bland said, whereas less-congested crosstown routes are able to hit a 95 percent on-time rate.
MTA points to its ongoing Murfreesboro Road project as an example of the innovations that could move buses faster and more consistently. The city is overhauling 41 intersections so that bus drivers can trigger traffic signals in their favor, and adding some “queue jump” lanes that allow buses to move to the front of the line when they are stopped by a red light.
“It’s not about making it super fast — it’s about trying to improve the reliability,” Bland said. “Down the road, frankly, trying to get more priority measures … is really going to be kind of the breakthrough.”
In the budget hearing, Bland also touted other smaller comforts — such as dozens of new vehicles joining the fleet this year, and the construction of nearly 100 new shelters at bus stops in the past three years.
The transit agency is also experimenting with a new approach to AccessRide, which is a “paratransit” option that allows seniors and residents with disabilities to schedule door-to-door rides. A common critique of that program is the amount of advanced notice needed to secure a ride, so the MTA launched an “on demand” version this month that allows same-day rides.
Bland wants its merits evaluated in the fall.