Friday, October 11, 2013

Bus rapid transit plan being sold as tried and true even though it is a convoluted experiment hemmed in by straw men

Vanderbilt professor Malcolm Getz sent a letter opposing the plan to fund bus rapid transit down West End to Metro Council a little over a week ago. His comments are relevant to my views of the BRT proposal:

The Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) sent a funding request to the FTA prematurely. The MTA systematically suppresses critical documents and misrepresents the effects of its proposal. We have filed multiple Freedom of Information Act requests for the original Parson's-Brinkerhoff study, and have not received it. We have received (through FOIA) the Alternatives Analysis and the Preliminary Engineering Report (118 pp. and 333 pp. respectively.) All of these reports were taxpayer funded and none have been made available to the public. The reports published on the MTA website are merely excerpts and summaries, and do not reflect the facts presented in the full reports. The MTA claims public involvement and implies public approval.

The MTA’s letter to the Council today refers to the "Alternatives Analysis" for the corridor begun in 2011, which forms the basis for the MTA Board’s January 2012 recommendation to advance the current plan. The plan removes lanes from traffic to dedicate them to buses. The Metro Council, State officials, and the Federal Transit Administration should insist on seeing the Alternatives Analysis. I have discussed the lack of public access to the full report with Mr. Peter Rogoff, the Federal Transit Administrator.

A pivotal issue is increased traffic congestion. The project removes two lanes of traffic and a turn lane from key sections of the highway between 440 and 5th Avenue. As a consequence, the project will dramatically increase traffic congestion, creating choke points. This effect will begin immediately as construction begins and will remain at a higher level after the project is complete. Although a number of other cities have deployed limited-stop bus rapid transit, only a few have provided lanes just for buses, and among these, none have taken lanes from major arterial roadways in the center of the city where no alternate routes are available for traffic. The AMP proposal is an experiment, but is presented as "tried and true."

The MTA claims that the new bus service will enhance access to the three major hospitals between 440 and 40 but the plan provides no bus stops at any of the three hospitals. Travelers face transfers to other vehicles or long walks to complete their journeys. Indeed, the bus stops are a block or more from major cross streets that provide connection to these major destinations. The quality of bus service to major mid-town destinations will be inferior to that provided today. This information is not included in the Summary Reports.

The primary effect of the project for bus riders is to move people from today’s cost effective service to a less convenient and more expensive service. The MTA claims the project will serve 4,500 weekday riders daily. But its own ridership estimates demonstrate that the vast majority of these riders are already making trips by bus. A very high level of expenditure per added local bus rider means the project is not cost effective.

The MTA proposes to dramatically reduce the frequency of the local bus service, making bus service less convenient for many people who make short bus trips and value being able to enter and exit buses at any blue bus stop sign. A major reduction in local bus service means that access to mid-town hotels and restaurants will degrade. The proposed limited stop bus service will not appeal to convention visitors.

I have spoken to many groups about this project and found that, once people understand the details, even many enthusiastic supporters of better public transportation for Nashville—and I count myself among them—become skeptical of this plan. It serves Nashville poorly. The MTA should make the public documents available for review and reconsider the issues of traffic congestion and bus ridership.

I have made it clear before that my opposition to Nashville's "Amp" as proposed by Mayor Karl Dean is based on the fact that alternatives analysis of routes has not been made public for scrutiny. We cannot thoroughly judge the validity of the claims of Metro Transit deciders (for instance, that West End is the best route for bus rapid transit) until we have access to the data collected from all routes. It would be interesting to know whether there is something to hide about Charlotte Pike and other alternatives that might make the West End corridor less compelling than the Mayor's supporters let on. (One other interesting question raised by CM Josh Stites is whether the HCA jobs projections, now sinking into refilling Lake Palmer, were included in MTA's filed proposal for federal funds).

The failure to be forthcoming is magnified by the fact that Metro Nashville has a tradition of neglecting North Nashville and of concentrating resources and infrastructure west and east. While the new "Amp Coalition" represents a rebranding of the mission to build an east-west connector and an attempt to flip the script to say that West End is merely the first move to provide BRT for everyone, I can see no good reason to have faith that North Nashville is even on the agenda of these hip transit nexters.

For his part the Mayor, rather than simply ordering that all analyses be made public, has taken to tilting at windmills:

The strongest case for The Amp would seem to be that as the mayor says, worse traffic is coming no matter what. West End, a corridor that is already often congested, will only get more and more crowded as the Middle Tennessee region grows (according to the city's oft-cited projection) by a million people between now and 2035. A transit option without a dedicated lane does little to solve this, the mayor and project supporters reasonably argue, because it would be subject to the same worsening congestion.

Unfortunately, the mayor wields this argument against an opponent unrecognizable to anyone who's been following the debate over The Amp. Call it "Dean to Straw Man: Drop Dead."

Sure, people may say, "Let's just leave everything alone, let's change nothing" — but largely they aren't saying that. There are those who strongly support investing in transit but think that we should start on Charlotte Avenue (and include parts of North Nashville, where many people depend on public transit). There are others who say a BRT Lite system — like those in operation on Gallatin Road and Murfreesboro Road — would be a better option on West End.

Why is Hizzoner acting so quixotic on an issue he should be winning? Steven Hale goes on to suggest a possibility: Mr. Dean may be expecting us to buy into Amp not on the basis of its merits, but simply because he himself as Mayor expects us to. If this is mayoral hubris, it is further indication to some of us who have not seen alternative data that West End might not be able to stand on its own merits.


  1. I realized a long time ago that Mayor Dean was Nashville's version of the Emperor and His New Clothes. Seems many are lining up behind his naked self expecting a new job after his next election. Unles Karl and Anne are writing the check I say, "NO DEAL on the AMP!" How many shrines to himself does he think Nashville should pay for?

  2. An east-west connector has always been on MTA's long-term plan. It jumped up to the top of the list when someone realized that federal funds would be available. West End is the only place where that level of federal funds are available, because of population/work density. MTA has plans for other parts of town; however, usefulness, neighborhood equity, and cost-effectiveness have been demoted as goals in order to do something BIG.