Nashville’s mayor has unveiled a $5.2 billion proposal for a 26 mile new light rail system in five corridors, with a 1.8 mile downtown subway segment. It would be funded by a half-cent initial increase in the sales tax, later boosted to a full cent, plus increases in the hotel and rental cars, and business and excise taxes. Bus upgrades are part of the program too.
Building a system like this makes no sense in a city like Nashville.
That doesn’t mean light rail would be an active bad for the city, but the gains will probably generate negative ROI, or at a minimum less of an ROI than many alternative ways to spend that kind of money.
The reasons are obvious:
1. Nashville is a very sprawling city with highly dispersed origins and destinations of traffic. It lacks the gigantic downtown employment centers of New York or Chicago that are well-suited to transit. According to the very pro-downtown City Observatory, Nashville only had 143,000 city center jobs in 2011, about 21% of the region’s total jobs. That was for a three mile radius circle around the city center. This generous 28 square mile region is vastly larger than the typical definition of a downtown. Even with red hot job growth, this number would not have grown to a level to justify a major core centric light rail system.
2. Nashville is overwhelmingly a city designed around the car (low density, etc). There’s a very limited quantity of districts designed in a transit oriented way. Basic pedestrian infrastructure is missing in many areas. I might suggest creating 21st century streets that are humane for pedestrians and bicyclists would be the first priority, and a pre-condition of transit.
Dallas, a much larger region and city, built a similar light rail system that has dramatically underperformed in terms of ridership. It certainly hasn’t been a game changer for the region’s transportation or development patterns. Central Dallas is doing well, but so are other cities without a light rail system. Many thousands of apartments have been going up in central Columbus, for example. Even huge and relatively dense Los Angeles has been unable to grow its transit ridership despite a massive investment in a vast rail network.
3. Transit and the auto are not good substitutes. Rail transit works best with high density, pedestrian oriented streets, very limited parking, high cost of driving (tolls, parkings), and terrible traffic congestion. So not only will transit not reduce traffic congestion, you almost need more of it to make transit work better. A city that tries to be halfway auto oriented/halfway transit oriented will work well for neither. Deteriorating traffic conditions are probably a given regardless of what the region does, but unless the city and regional really turn the screws on autos (which I doubt they will be able to do) it will be hard to make transit really take off. And maybe not even then (cf: Los Angeles)
4. This is by far the single most expensive capital project ever that I have been able to identify in Nashville. The Music City Center was only about $650 million. The city’s airport expansion is planned for $1.2 billion. Building a light rail system would be much, much more expensive than these already financially large projects. How many projects of $5.2 billion or more have any metro areas the size of Nashville built? I can’t think of one offhand, but there can’t be that many of them in any case. The ROI hurdle for something like this is enormous – especially if you consider that this is not a metro wide project but Davidson County only. [Update: I remember the Honolulu rail project at a $10-13 billion price tag – a project that has been a disaster]
5. And don’t forget, comes with a large capital replacement tail. Agreeing to build something shiny and new is one thing. Finding the billions it will take to reconstruct just to keep it at end of lifecycle is another. Just ask Washington Metro riders.
Even if the money is totally wasted, which it would not be, building a $5.2 billion light rail system still wouldn’t sink the city. But you’ve only got so much money to go around. At a 10.25% sales tax as proposed, Nashville would likely be tapped out here in terms of future tax increase. You’ve also only got so much management time and attention to give. Is this where you want to put your money and your time?
This is a great example of interior cities being unable to transcend coastal definitions of what a “major league city” should look like. Nashville does need to reinvent its transport infrastructure for the modern area and to accommodate growth. It has the opportunity to do that in a way contextually appropriate to what it is. Instead, they’ve chosen to simply try to copy what Portland did way back in the day.
Nashville, by not turning its back on country music but embracing it, showed how it’s done from a brand perspective. They weren’t afraid to be different from the coasts in ways that might be perceived as déclassé. They should find it within themselves to channel that same spirit when it comes to transportation.
For further info see my reality check on rail transit paper from earlier this year.