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Will Nashville have a streetcar?

Sunday, October 24, 2010 at 9:45pm
By Joey Garrison

Portland, Ore., is recognized as a national trailblazer for its implementation of modern streetcars. Annual ridership was nearly 4 million last year. In the Nashville of tomorrow, a West End resident could conceivably jump aboard a streetcar near Murphy Road in the morning, read the paper, enjoy a coffee, and whiz by vehicular congestion en route to downtown.

That may not be so farfetched.

Following a resurgent interest in streetcars in cities nationwide, Nashville’s transit leaders are taking an initial step that could position the city to compete for federal grant dollars to build a modern streetcar line along the Broadway-West End Avenue corridor, stretching from Lower Broadway, through the commercial district on West End, all the way to White Bridge Road near Belle Meade.

The Metro Transit Authority is looking for proposals to study the feasibility, need and cost of a modern urban streetcar down the roughly five-mile stretch. Light rail and bus rapid transit will also be examined. Modern streetcars are electric vehicles that circulate on a rail, designed to make frequent stops along heavily trafficked areas.

It’s just a study, and findings won’t be known for another one or two years, but it’s the type of blueprint other cities have followed to cash in on an unprecedented amount of federal funding available for streetcar projects.

“We want to be able to qualify for federal funds to invest in that corridor,” said MTA CEO Paul Ballard. “They have a robust planning process they require you to go through.”

In this year alone, the U.S. Department of Transportation has awarded more than $258 million for streetcar projects in Portland, Ore.; Tucson, Ariz.; Dallas; Cincinnati; Charlotte, N.C.; St. Louis; and Fort Worth, Texas.

Nashville could be the next city to jump aboard the bandwagon, but several things need to happen first. The study would need to show that a streetcar on Broadway-West End is warranted over other transit options, such as additional bus service or rail. Citizens would need to express an appetite for such a system. Most importantly — and also most challenging — Mayor Karl Dean and other elected officials would need to identify a city-based funding source dedicated solely to mass transit. Without that, Nashville won’t ever be on the radar for competitive federal transit dollars.

Even in the best-case scenario, a modern streetcar system is at minimum six or seven years down the road, transit authorities say. Still, the concept has already piqued the interest of Dean, who helped launch the Middle Tennessee Mayors Caucus to consider new regional transit options.

“It’s an exciting idea,” Dean said.

Nashville playing catch-up

A modern streetcar line along Broadway and West End is one of several initiatives in the Nashville Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s 2035 Regional Plan, poised for adoption later this year. The plan, required by federal law, establishes a transportation vision for Middle Tennessee.

“As we pursue regional mass transit, if you don’t have good circulation in downtown Nashville where people are willing to go to and from, people are going to have no way to get to those regional lines,” said Michael Skipper, executive director of the Nashville Area MPO. “I see the West End corridor as being the central piece of that.”

Transit authorities believe the Broadway-West End corridor could be ripe for a streetcar line for a variety of reasons. The corridor is among the city’s most congested; it connects neighborhoods, landmarks like Vanderbilt University, and West End’s shopping and dining outlets to downtown; and MTA’s bus lines and Music City Star feed into what could be streetcar stations. Also, it’s a nod to history and civic nostalgia, since West End featured a streetcar line in the early 20th century.

A modern streetcar system shouldn’t be confused with trolley systems featured in cities such as Memphis. Instead, a model for Nashville could be the Portland Streetcar, first launched in Portland, Ore., in 2001. Today it connects that city’s downtown with outlying neighborhoods and districts. Streetcars there run on continuous loops on a track, operate alongside vehicular traffic, and top out around 30 miles per hour, though they typically don’t run that fast. Nearly 1.4 million passengers used Portland’s streetcar during its first year, with annual ridership reaching almost 4 million in 2009.

Seen as the birthplace of the modern streetcar in the United States, Portland played host last week to the “Rail-Volution,” a conference for those interested in urban mass transit. Among those riding and analyzing Portland’s streetcar were a few Nashvillians, including Ed Cole, executive director of the recently established Transit Alliance of Middle Tennessee, and Gary Gaston, design director of the Nashville Civic Design Center.

“Clearly, the time has come for us to seriously consider an urban streetcar,” Cole told The City Paper by phone while at the conference. “I think there’s no question about it. It’s not just about transportation. It’s also about economic development. We’ve seen the numbers here in Portland. They just validate the fact that development potential, whether it’s commercial or retail, as well as residential, just skyrockets when you have access to an urban streetcar kind of connection.”

Dean has also cited the role a modern streetcar, or other transit solutions, could play in spurring development and “increasing the city’s tax base.” In Portland, the streetcar is credited with transforming previously underdeveloped, even blighted, parts of town into lively neighborhoods. The Broadway-West End corridor certainly isn’t underdeveloped, but transit enthusiasts still say it would benefit from such a system.

“For other cities, it’s resulted in a huge reinvestment,” Gaston said. “What we’ve been doing is thinking about how do you get higher use of the property that surrounds West End. If you think about it, there are so many one-story buildings on what’s supposed to be our signature street. I think that with an investment like streetcar, you would start to see larger developments go there.”

Gaston and other civic design center staffers have been working with the Nashville Area MPO, putting together schematic designs and renderings to offer a visual representation of what a modern streetcar line could look like along the Broadway-West End corridor. The design center is set to display its work at a later exhibition.

“Thinking of all the cities that we are currently comparing ourselves to,” Gaston said, which often includes Charlotte, Denver and Austin, Texas, “they already have some type of streetcar system or light rail, so we’re really playing catch-up. I think this is critical for us to do.”

The future of transit in Nashville is not limited to the streetcar concept, nor are ideas centered just on Broadway-West End. MTA recently launched a new bus rapid transit system on Gallatin Pike in East Nashville; that could be duplicated on other corridors. Light rail has been discussed as another option. There’s also the forthcoming Northeast Corridor Mobility Study, which will recommend transit strategies for the 30-mile corridor between Nashville and Gallatin.

For Nashville to overhaul its last-century mass transit system, leaders need to find a local, dedicated funding stream. Possibilities — none have picked up political steam — include a vehicle registration fee, a wheel tax, tax-increment financing or an addition to the local sales tax, though Tennessee’s sales tax is likely already too high for that to float.

“Probably not this year, but some point next year there will be more of a large discussion on that issue,” Dean said.