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VOL. 38 | NO. 38 | Friday, September 19, 2014

The road to better mass transit: New MTA CEO says Amp will be success only if part of larger system

By Jeannie Naujeck

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Picking a new transit chief is critical for a city in transition.

Next year, Nashville residents will elect a new mayor and turn over its large Metro Council.

Davidson County also expects some 200,000 new residents over the next 20 years, and much of the success of future development will depend on the ease of navigating around Nashville – already the nation’s second-worst area for sprawl, according to Smart Growth America.

It’s against that backdrop – and the ongoing controversy over Nashville’s proposed $174 million Amp bus rapid transit project linking East Nashville to West End – that Stephen G. Bland has stepped in as chief executive officer of the Nashville Metropolitan Transit Authority.

Bland’s resume includes seven years as CEO of the Port Authority of Allegheny County (Pittsburgh); executive director of the position at the Capital District Transportation Authority in Albany, N.Y., and senior positions at transit systems in York, Pa., Connecticut, and the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey’s PATH Rail System.

Bland is settling in with his wife in East Nashville, a neighborhood they chose for its walkability. The couple also has a son away at college.

For the past month, he has been spending much of his time on a “listening tour,” meeting with government, political and business leaders as well as neighborhood, religious and minority groups and the social services community to hear their transportation concerns and ideas.

That feedback will help inform the objectives that will be outlined in the MTA’s new strategic plan – the business model for the agency that is crafted around community needs and carried out as it is funded.

Bland sat down with The Ledger to talk about his approach to creating a comprehensive transportation plan, what he thinks of the Amp controversy, and how transit is like bacon.

Q: Everyone seems to agree that transportation is one of our biggest issues and should have been solved yesterday. As you meet with community leaders, are you feeling that sense of urgency and importance?

“Yes. Interestingly enough, even people who are in completely unrelated fields – business people, people in education – maybe it’s because they are talking to the transportation guy and they want to be polite, but when somebody says to me, ‘Public transportation is one of the top one or two or three issues,’ I always ask why. And almost always they have real reasons for saying that.

“It might be somebody in the development community who’s talking about what they are hearing from out-of-town investors about what Nashville has to do. Or it might be somebody in the education community saying ‘We are challenged getting students in and out of locations.’

“But I definitely think it’s a hot issue, and it’s definitely in the public consciousness.

“One of the first things I do when I start in a new city is I just try and go out and meet as many people as possible to learn the fabric of the community. The only transit system that works is the one that’s right for a particular region. And the only way you can find that out is by having a very exhaustive, inclusive conversation with the people who live here.

“I’ve been getting very easy acceptances of appointments from extremely high-level people in the city. If they didn’t think it was important, why would they want to spend an hour, an hour and a-half with me?

“It’s one of the things that excited me about Nashville. You have to have committed elected leadership, you have to have committed business leadership, community leadership, you have to have an active grassroots community, and you have to have people willing to participate.

“And I think people here really are struggling for a transit solution. Nobody has an obvious answer. The obvious answer isn’t, ‘Let’s build a rail system in this corridor or let’s do this or that.’ They’re really grappling with, ‘What can we do to make it better?’’’

Q: Is it shocking to you that a city of our size doesn’t have a well-developed mass transit system?

“No, not shocking. There are a lot of what I would call peer cities that are, frankly, dealing with the same kinds of debates in the sense of, ‘We really need more of it; we’re just not sure what we need or how to go about it.’

“But by the same token, there are clearly a lot of cities that are also in that category where Nashville is in terms of size and density, particularly the rapid growth, that have dealt with that question and are advancing much larger transit systems.

“One of the things that attracted me to come here was the idea of helping Nashville kind of work through that debate and those issues and try to figure out what we want to do with transit in the community, really going out five, 10, 20 years from now.’’

Q: The most visible debate is over the proposed Amp BRT system, which would run from East Nashville out West End mostly on dedicated road lanes. It seems that some of the resistance being expressed is out of frustration with the existing congestion, and the idea that it might get even worse.

“When I interviewed with the board here, they asked whether or not I’d seen the controversy over the Amp, and how do I relate to that? I said, ‘I’ve read the public domain documents on the Amp, I’ve been to the Stop Amp website, the Amp Yes website, I’ve read all the media accounts – and it pretty much looks like every place I’ve ever been that’s debated this stuff.’

“I actually think it’s a positive thing. Because if it’s considered one of the top issues in the city, and you’re talking about the expenditure of public dollars and significant changes to not only the city landscape, but the regional picture … I mean, if that doesn’t generate spirited debate, I have to question whether folks are awake.

“In a lot of places, public debates are generated over projects like this, or something that a public agency is doing. And sometimes it’s reflective of those bigger concerns.

“Transportation doesn’t generate the congestion. What’s generating congestion is growth. When I first looked at the West End corridor, I looked down the street and I think I counted five construction cranes. People think, ‘Congestion – it’s a terrible thing; we’ve got to get rid of congestion.’

“Well, there are a lot of places that have no congestion that would kill for it. Because it means economic activity. People are going to work, or going shopping, or traveling to sporting events, or going to musical performances. It means there are economic generators and it’s an attractive place to come. And that’s all good.

“So the issue is not how do we get back to 1960, when I could go anywhere and not get stuck in traffic. The issue is, how do we keep things relatively manageable with 200,000 people coming into Davidson County and 1 million coming into the region?

“Because if we don’t do something, and it really gets that bad, people will start saying, ‘Nashville’s not the ‘It City’ anymore, and we’re going to go somewhere else where people are dealing with this challenge.’

“The broader conversation about what we do with transit here has to be, ‘How do we create not just a transit system, but a transportation network that best serves a changing market?’

“One of the questions I ask when I meet with people is, ‘What other city should we compare ourselves to, whether it’s for transit, transportation or other things?’

“The one I keep hearing is, ‘We don’t want to become Atlanta!’ And I’ve actually heard even in Pittsburgh, companies that were going to locate there that said, ‘We were talking about Atlanta but it’s just too hard to get around.’ So transit can be part of that discussion but there are a lot of other public policy debates.’’

Q: Besides “We don’t want to be Atlanta!” you’ve probably also heard, “Nashville is a car culture and you’ll never get people to ride the bus.”

“First of all, everywhere is a car culture. Given the choice, it’s pretty attractive to be able to get into this nice comfortable leather seat with the music of my choice and go wherever I want whenever I want.

“So unless people really want to ride their bicycle to work for exercise, usually they are looking for the path of least resistance. Nobody does transportation because they just love it.

“When people talk about great transit, they say New York City has great transit. I say, ‘Today seven million people are getting on the New York City subway system. And if you asked any one of them, ‘Is it because this is the most wonderful experience you’ve ever had?’ – you wouldn’t find anyone who said yes. But the alternative is so bad by comparison.

“What transit offers is choice. I would never argue that everybody has to ride. That’s one of the concerns I’ve heard from people who aren’t crazy about transit – that it’s social engineering, that you’re going to force me out of my car.

“It’s not about forcing anybody to do anything. It’s about offering a viable choice so that if the trip works for you, you have another way of doing it.’’

Q: Multimodal is a big buzzword in transportation. What does it mean to you?

“When I think about multimodal, it’s not even on the public transportation side of looking at commuter rail or bus or bus rapid transit or light rail or heavy rail or whatever it might be. It’s looking at how people travel and where they travel. Nobody – and I mean absolutely nobody – ever completed a trip exclusively on transit. Or, for that matter, on any other mode.

“If you are driving a car, you walked to it or you took an elevator out of your building. So when you think about origin-to-destination, pedestrian is key. For transit to work well anywhere, pedestrian access is key. The challenge in public transit, particularly for the higher capacity modes like bus rapid transit or rail, is what we refer to as ‘last mile.’

“We can get you downtown to West End, great. But chances are your final destination point isn’t on West End Avenue. It might be a couple blocks off or further off. So how do we deal with the endpoint of that trip?

“That’s where you’re looking beyond the transit modes at emerging models like Uber, Zip Car, B-cycle, the taxi system. So the pedestrian piece to me is absolutely key. If you can’t walk to the transit stop or the transit station, we have no chance of picking you up.

“When I was in Pittsburgh, we did the whole dedicated funding debate and ended up with a couple of sources that I never would have predicted. And one of them was a tax on rental cars. I got to know the car rental community pretty well. And one of the guys who was a regional director for Enterprise said, ‘Even though we are violently opposed to this funding source for public transportation, we are pro-transit.’

“And I said, ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘Our best markets are the cities where the best transit systems exist, because nobody can do 100 percent of their trips on transit. If you can do 80 percent of your trips on transit there’s a good chance you’ll decide, ‘I don’t need to own a car. It’s too expensive to buy, too expensive to operate.’

“‘But for that 20 percent of the time you need a car – you need to go to Target and do the 40-bag run, or you want to go to the mountains and see the leaves – you’re going to need a car and you’re going to rent it from me.’

“There’s nobody in Nashville, there’s nobody in Pittsburgh, there’s nobody in New York City who can do all of their travel exclusively on public transit.’’

Q: You ran into funding issues in Pittsburgh. Does the MTA have an adequate budget given the needs we have?

“Adequate is a relative term. We had our fundraising campaign kickoff for the Metro charity drive with a pancake breakfast and, much to my chagrin, we were making bacon. And the smell of bacon is just addictive.

“So I’m like, all right, one piece of bacon. Then it’s two pieces of bacon.

“And transit is sort of like that. It’s never adequately funded – nor is education, nor are social services. Whatever level you raise the bar to, someone will always want or need you to raise the bar higher.

“From experience I can tell you the challenge of how to spend money is a lot more fun than how to raise money.

“Over the last few years, certainly with Mayor Dean and the current Metro Council, spending on transit has gone up significantly and ridership has gone up along with it. But transit is like bacon. (Laughs.) You always want just one more piece.’’

Q: We have a huge Metro Council – 40 members – one of the largest in the country. What do you think about building consensus among such a large group?

Ridership biases are nothing new to Bland, who admits his wife “will ride rail but probably won’t ride the bus” He adds: “She can see the tracks, and she knows that they can’t go anywhere else with it.”

-- Lyle Graves | Ledger

“People said, ‘When you come here you’re going to have to deal with a 40 member Council.’ My answer was, ‘Is that all?’ The fact that there is Metropolitan government (city-county governance) in Nashville is an advantage because it is much less fragmented than it is in the Northeast.

“Pittsburgh had a 15-member county council, a 15-member city council and then 129 other municipalities. At any given time we were probably dealing with nine or 10 of those. So this one’s actually relatively manageable.

“Looking at that region and seeing the interest of the mayors in the outlying areas … you will deal with mobility and congestion differently in Franklin than you will in downtown Nashville, but the fact that the mayor of Franklin recognizes it’s an issue that needs to be addressed there, not only locally but also as part of the broader region, I think is a marvelous opportunity.

“The fact that we at MTA work closely with the RTA, apart from being just part of the regional dialogue, the fact that there is some operational integration is a huge opportunity to advance the debate.

Q: How did you get into transportation as a career field? You describe a very business-minded approach to a public service.

“For a while I was working for the PATH system in New York and New Jersey, which is kind of an odd system. It’s more of a heavy rail subway system, but it’s actually regulated as a commuter rail system between New York and New Jersey.

“My earliest recollections of childhood were going to the circus with my parents on the PATH train. So I think it says something that my earliest recollection as a human being was of a transit system.

“There’s an idealistic aspect to it – wouldn’t the environment be better and wouldn’t cities be better, and so there’s a piece of that, too.

“But, I fundamentally know that to gain broad support, you have to establish the business case, too. That’s just the nature of our country and of who we are. We are a capitalist society. So even though we recognize, I certainly recognize, it’s not going to be profitable … actually, I say that public transportation is the most profitable business you can be in, except the transit agency doesn’t keep the profit. It’s the neighborhoods that it’s in, it’s the businesses that are online, it’s the people who have access to employment.

“I also look at transit as a business, and in any business you have to understand your market and design product and promotion and pricing and all of the physical amenities that attract that market and hopefully exceed their expectations.

Q: In your circles, what city is regarded as having the best public transit service?

“Best is such a subjective term. It doesn’t just go to the transit system. It goes to the development patterns. If you look at things like per capita ridership, you obviously have to go to places like New York City, Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia because it is the dominant form of transportation.

“But it’s more than just the transit systems; it’s the fact that they’re so dense and so large and they have been built around those systems.

“In the newer cities, certainly Denver is doing exciting things. Even Los Angeles – as recently as 20 years ago, people were saying it’s hopeless. As they’ve built out their system now, all of a sudden, they are starting to develop more.

“You obviously have to put services and facilities in that have some level of demand, which is why the West End corridor is a very attractive corridor, and that’s why Gallatin Road is a good one for BRT Light because there is a lot of activity now.

“But one of the things that is exciting about the demographics is, the cities that are putting the infrastructure in place, that are developing those higher-end systems and have been in there for some time, now they’re actually seeing that development occur around it, whether you want to call it TOD [transit-oriented-developments] or just the natural form of development, and it’s happening in Nashville.

“Nashville is getting more dense. It’s growing. And certainly there continues to be sprawling development, and I suspect there always will be because that’s a choice some people make, but you are also getting more density of development which makes it much easier to get that critical mass.’’

Q: Are adding express bus lines and more frequent service the low-hanging fruit, things that you can easily do to get quick results? The BRT Light lines have been a success on Gallatin Road and Murfreesboro Road.

“BRT Light is relatively low cost, certainly an upgrade. Looking at that market information, certainly the ridership performance has been very positive. But my general approach is, I’ve been working in public transportation for 28 years, and I think I know a thing or two, but I don’t know what the right answer for Nashville is.

“I know a lot of right questions to ask. How do you design the best public transit system? I say you ask people what they want, you find out what they will use and then you deliver it to them.

“So what we really need to get a better handle on is that market information: Who is using BRT Light relative to who is using the local milk run relative to who would use the higher end, full-blown bus rapid transit or, for that matter, light rail or another mode? And then you can make informed judgments about expenses.

“I think a legitimate question that some of the opponents of the Amp have raised is, ‘You spent $3 million on BRT Light for Gallatin Road. So $3 million for that, $170 million for this – does that make sense?’

“It’s a legitimate question. There’s a variety of ways to answer. And to me it comes back to at what level do you gain enough market share to have a meaningful impact, to really change the dynamics of public transit.

“It would be a real shame if we did the Amp, and that’s all we ever did. It has to be part of a bigger system, and the cities that are looked at – whether they are the traditional large Northeastern or European cities, or the more successful Sun Belt cities like Denver and Dallas that have had success … yeah, they had to start somewhere, there was one line that started it, but it was part of a more comprehensive system that developed over time.’’

Q: Is light rail on the table?

“I’d say everything, over time, is on the table. You never say never on mode. What I’d say to people is, don’t get too fixated on what that technology is … bus rapid transit, commuter bus, commuter light rail, whatever. Look more at the market. Look at what the market and the prospective market is, and design a service around it.

“I ran a light rail system in Pittsburgh, and light rail is great, in its place. But it’s very expensive to build – and very expensive to operate, which is the other piece of the equation. You really have to look at what the market wants out of the service.

“And there are absolutely people in every community – I would put my wife in this category – who will ride rail but probably won’t ride the bus. But you have to figure out marginally what that is.

“One of the biggest advantages of light rail, relative to bus or bus rapid transit, is capacity. I would say Nashville certainly has some corridors that are dense enough to consider light rail. The challenge is, with that high capacity, where you save money in operation – because it’s more expensive to operate – is by reducing frequency.

“So the question I would ask anybody who’s a prospective user is, Would you rather have a high-end bus rapid transit system like what the Amp is projected to be, running every seven or eight minutes, or light rail running every 15 minutes?

“So those are, to me, the market questions. And then you get into mode when you look at, what’s the growth in a corridor, what’s the density in that corridor, and what kind of ridership are you expecting to generate?’’

Q: Our population demographics are changing. As new folks move here from other cities, there is an expectation that we will have transportation choices. And nationwide, the rate of young people getting a driver license and owning a car is on a definite downward trend.

“The demographics are definitely shifting. We ended up moving to East Nashville, and as I was walking around the neighborhood two weekends ago, I ran into a guy next door to an open house I was going to.

“He’s a professor at Vanderbilt who moved here seven or eight years ago from San Francisco. He asked me what I did and I said, ‘I’m going to run MTA, the transit agency.’ He said, ‘Oh, I rode transit in San Francisco all the time! I would love to ride the transit system here. I just wish we had one.’ That’s sort of the nature of what that market expectation is.

“The majority of people in San Francisco ride the bus. There are individual bus routes in San Francisco that carry more people than the MTA does on a daily basis. So again, I don’t freak out on the mode. I don’t say, ‘Boy, unless we have rail we’re not big time,’ because it’s what the service quality is, how it meets the market expectation.

“And the first key is reliability. If I can’t count on it being there, if it’s not safe, if the operator isn’t professional and courteous, frankly, nobody wants to use it.

“The convenience piece is important. It doesn’t necessarily have to be as fast or faster than driving; it has to be comparable. It’s frequency. It’s span. I need to know that if I might work late, I can’t use it if it stops running at six or seven at night. It’s got to be lengthy, if not around-the-clock then certainly late hours. It’s got to be six or seven days a week for people to use it regularly.

“And then the mode … the one thing that sets apart say BRT Light from rail is the sense of permanence. My wife is in that demographic of people who will ride a train but won’t ride a bus. Her issue is, with the train she sees where it’s going. She can see the tracks, and she knows that they can’t go anywhere else with it.

“Now, the bus runs on a route, but the guy’s still got a wheel and he can go wherever he wants. So I think the permanence of the stations, and to a large extent the dedicated right-of-way… that’s the other piece of the higher-end BRT systems. Particularly in congested corridors, where you have preferential treatment for transit you know you can maintain that on-time performance, and you know that your bus is going to show up at 7:15.

“The higher-end bus rapid transit systems, like what Cleveland’s done with the Health Line, it looks very much like a smaller version of light rail. And for the development community, there’s permanence in a rail system or a high-end bus rapid transit system in that you know they are not going to eliminate that service because they spent too much money putting the infrastructure in.’’

Q: Developers are ready to build transit-oriented-developments (TODs). Hamilton Station in Lebanon, the first TOD in the state, has opened its first phase of homes that will be located around a Music City Star commuter train station, and there are other proposals on the table.

“Of the people I’ve met with so far, the group that’s been most vocal about needing more and better transit has been the business community. Even more than elected officials and even more than planners – and that’s a big deal, because planners tend to be way out there. And within the business community, the people that have been most vocal about it are the developers.

“Again, coming back to markets. Because developers know the people that are looking to locate here, and one of the first questions they ask is, ‘What kind of access to transit do I have?’ TOD, to some extent, had been sort of a planner desire for a while, and then all of a sudden the market caught up to that idea, of people wanting that access.

“For example, my wife and I located in East Nashville. Our son just graduated high school and he’s off to college so I said, ‘We don’t have to worry about schools; we don’t have to worry about being on a street where he will get hit by a car; I want to be able to walk to restaurants and to different places in the neighborhood.’

“So whether it’s for the Millennials coming up, or for the empty-nesters going out, that’s becoming much more of a priority. Developers are seeing that and their thing is, I can build a commercially viable product, but I need the transit to make it work. And I’ve talked to at least three or four developers in Nashville that are saying that exact thing.’’

Q: You have some real talent at the wheel. There was a great story a few years back about how some MTA employees had a musical group called Transit, and Jack White overheard someone at the airport talking about it and personally called MTA to invite them to his studio. They ended up cutting a single (C’mon and Ride) that was released by Third Man Records.

“I run into stories like that all the time. We don't have TV hooked up yet, and half our furniture isn't here, so the other day I went to one of the neighborhood restaurants to watch the Steelers game.

“I’m sitting at the bar watching the game, and the bartender’s telling me about how he used to be a roadie for Neil Diamond, and they found this box with hair in it and it turns out that Neil Diamond’s bald! I hear stories like that all the time in Nashville.’’

Q: That’s part of the fun of living here. The Amp debate, maybe not so much.

“Everybody sees this dark cloud with the Amp controversy, but I keep seeing silver linings. You know, the people who are opposed are crucial to engage in the broader discussion. I think a lot of the Amp opponents who I’ve asked to meet with are like, ‘Are you coming here to try to convince me to like the Amp?’

“Well, to be honest, I think that ship has sailed. I’m interested to find out why you are opposed, and I’m interested to find out your perspective on the broader system:

“Is it restricted to just this particular project, or this particular piece of the project, or do you just hate the idea that the government spends money on anything? “What is at the core of that?

“Those are probably the most important perspectives. I want the cynics and I want the skeptics.

“I’ve talked to avid supporters of the Amp and avid opponents of the Amp, and I’m going to be talking to more. And the civility of the debate seems to be a characteristic of Nashville. I can’t say I’ve been here long enough to know that that’s always the case.

“But frankly, in some of the places I’ve been, I’m used to more of a street fight environment.

“And people genuinely interested in positive futures for the community and maybe just not agreeing at the moment on how we go about it – I think that’s just part of the process.

“I’ve heard people say on the Amp debate, ‘Oh God, why do we have to go through this? Why can’t we just get what Denver has, or what Charlotte has?’

“Well, I’ve got news for you: there’s a lot of blood on their carpets too. I’m not aware of any place that did a significant upgrade in transit without going through some version of what Nashville is going through now.

“I think the mayor was very wise to sort of pull back and appoint the Citizens Advisory Committee to have informed debate on the West End corridor; are there ways we can make the corridor better to get to a point where the conversation is moving on.

“Until we hear that answer, it’s very hard to say what will happen. What I hope doesn’t happen is that the Amp gets built in whatever form, and that’s all we ever do.

“Because if it doesn’t become part of a larger system, it will be nice – it will be very nice if you’re in that corridor – but it will never realize its full ridership potential, and for years critics will be saying, ‘I told you. I told you so.’ And the city will never realize its full potential either.’’

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