Arguments for and against bus rapid transit in Nashville

Here is an overview of arguments for and against plans to introduce mass transit in the form of rapid bus service to Nashville:

The Amp, a referential name in Music City, is the $174 million bus-rapid transit project proposed to link the western stretches of the city to East Nashville over a 7.1-mile span. It’s the first in-earnest attempt at reliable mass transit in Tennessee, and it has been pitched as a way to keep pace with peer cities like Austin and Charlotte. Nashville is poised to add a million more residents in the next two decades, further snarling already-jammed travels along the busiest corridors. The hope is that the Amp, running in a bus-only lane and with priority at traffic signals, will, over time, help unclog commutes and improve quality of life…

Detractors include residents from North Nashville, a mostly lower-income African-American neighborhood, who feel like they’re being left out and would prefer to see increased regular bus service in their community. (One state representative even threatened to sue city officials if North Nashville is not more integral to the project.) Fiscal conservatives, of which Nashville has plenty, say the project is an example of government largess. And then there are the residents in and around the mayor’s neighborhood, whose traffic and parking concerns have been rolled into an increasingly fraught class war.

Back when public debate over the BRT first started heating up in fall of 2012, a West End resident actually told a transit planner at a public hearing that “we don’t want the riffraff from East Nashville in our neighborhood.” Another homeowner said an influx of “burger-flippers” into the western precincts was a worry, prompting one East Nashville merchant to propose a T-shirt idea: “Burger flippers for the Amp.”…

Malcolm Getz, an economist at Vanderbilt University and a lightning rod of the opposition, has tried to make the case that the Amp’s route, which starts in a gentrified East Nashville neighborhood, crossing the Cumberland River before coursing its way up the densely developed West End Avenue, was chosen to benefit landowners, who are banking on increased land values and more development.

But Jason Holleman, a city councilman who supports public transportation but whose western district includes some of the loudest naysayers, counters that in reality, the route was chosen to serve areas with the highest commercial density, including the city’s two largest employers, HCA and Vanderbilt University…

Opinion polls on the Amp have offered mixed results. One survey, funded by a Rockefeller Foundation grant aimed at boosting transit support, found that around 77 percent supported the Amp after surveying 500 registered voters. In another survey conducted by the Nashville Business Journal in which 2,200 participated, the results yielded an almost 50-50 split. Anecdotally, support appears to be tied to where residents reside, with the East-West divide coming up again and again.

Common themes that come up with major projects: who exactly is the mass transit going to serve? Do the costs lead to increased business and revenues down the road? Who benefits from all of this? Aren’t buses for lower-class residents? It is interesting that Nashville feels like it should catch up with other cities it competes with; bus rapid transit as an exciting amenity for visitors and tourists! And, as is noted in the final paragraph, a single bus corridor may not be able to do much for a big city built around cars but it could be part of a larger package that eventually effectively utilizes mass transit (though this may be a long time off).

All of this reminds me that it is often easier to have mass transit or major infrastructure from the past to add to rather than trying to create something new in today’s world where there are so many competing interests and costs seem so high. Of course, older projects had their own problems. For example, a lot of major post-World War II projects involved more liberal use of slum clearance with little regard to the people who lived there. (I’m thinking of the construction of interstates through Chicago as well as the University of Illinois-Chicago campus.)

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