Manifest Density: Mayor Dean Favors Bus Rapid Transit Over Light Rail

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As reported by The City Paper's Joey Garrison, today Mayor Karl Dean threw his support behind a bus rapid transit (BRT) system connecting Five Points to West Nashville, after a consulting firm narrowed the best options down to light rail (at a cost of roughly $275 million) and BRT (at the relatively small price of $136 million).

“I’m a big fan of our buses,” Dean said Monday morning to members of the Broadway-West End Steering Committee, who voted to support consultants’ recommendations for BRT. “The fact is, with BRT, we’ll have even better buses.

“If you look at decisions the way I have to look at things, there is the cost,” he said. “There is a $130 million difference in the cost. That is significant when we have to figure out how to pay for this.”

Dean, who said BRT would generate virtually the same ridership numbers as a streetcar, indicated a new BRT system along West End, Broadway and into East Nashville could be installed by late 2014 or early 2015. The report —— initiated more than a year ago to review transit options from White Bridge Road to East Nashville —— is a prerequisite to land federal dollars for transportation projects. The level of local dollars needed for the project is still unclear.

“We’ve been working with consultants, looking where the best chances are to get federal funding,” Dean said. “We believe it is bus rapid transit.”

So why can't we be like Portland and Seattle and have cool-looking street cars with nicknames like S.L.U.T.? Simply put: We're not dense enough.

Now, one could argue that the time to install a system that can accommodate greater density is before that level of density has been achieved, but as the mayor notes, I'm not the one who has to pay for this stuff. In any case, we are told the higher-end BRT buses look like street cars and, if they have their own lanes and close-together stations, they'll basically be functioning in much the same manner as street cars, but with lower start-up cost and easier vehicle acquisition. (There are definitely stretches of road between White Bridge and Five Points where it's hard for me to imagine there's enough space for a dedicated BRT lane, but maybe I'm just too dense.)

You'll be familiar with some of the broader outlines of the Nashville-area transit discussion if you caught Joe Morris' piece in the Nashville Ledger last week, and for the pro-sprawl counterargument to transit in general and rail in particular, check out this post, titled "Tilting at (Transit) Windmills in Nashville," over at New Geography, which posits that sprawl — which is, for lack of a better word, good — contributes to our not-terrible traffic congestion:

This favorable traffic situation is despite the fact that Nashville has among the lowest overall transit market shares in the United States or Western Europe (less than 0.5 percent of travel in the metropolitan area). The key to this success, like that of other American metropolitan areas in relation to their international peers is low density and decentralization of employment and other commercial locations.

If that sounds like an argument against mass transit, it should.

Anyway, we'll have to see how this all shakes out — the steering committee voted in favor of BRT, but there's still that whole getting-federal-monies part, then the local-monies part and the getting-people-to-ride-it part. (We're into that sort of thing here at the Scene.) And while even the best laid plans don't always work out quite the way their inventors hope, a bus plan is better than no plan.

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