GNRC Unified Transportation Plan unites dozens of mayors across Middle Tennessee

By KATE COIL
TML Communications Specialist

Mayors and municipal officials from across Middle Tennessee are coming together to support a new transportation plan aimed at alleviating congestion and preventing predicted gridlock on major roadways in the greater Nashville area.
The Unified Transportation Plan 2020 was created as part of the “Year of Transportation,” an initiative seeking federal funding for mass transit and alternative transportation in the Middle Tennessee region. Created by the Greater Nashville Regional Council (GNRC), the plan has the support of 93 mayors in the region.
The plan involves studies of key corridors, including the southern Interstate 65 corridor, Downtown Interstate Loop (I-40, I-24, I-65), and incorporating local transportation plans and priorities, including the work currently underway across Metro Nashville and the greater Nashville area.
Research has already indicated if the area’s current congestion and transportation issues are not dealt with the region could face complete transportation gridlock.
Franklin Mayor Ken Moore serves as chair of the Regional Council’s Mayors Caucus, which develops the organization’s annual policy and legislative priorities. Moore said the study of key corridors is aimed at regions that seem to be major sources of congestion that can led to traffic issues further out.
“We know that the major choke points happen to be the inner loop in Nashville,” Moore said. “That is why both TDOT and the GNRC’s Transportation Policy Board are studying that loop to see what solutions there may be. That would be a good start in solving some of the congestions and delays. There are some unusual things about the South Interstate 65 corridor that goes from Davidson County down through Williamson into Maury. The major difference between that corridor and others is that it has almost the same number of people leaving as it does coming in every day.”
The plan also looks at how many of these same routes could benefit from alternative transportation.
“This study is looking specifically at I-65, Highway 31, and the CSX rail lines, which are potential route options for us,” Moore said. “This helps us paint a vision for the future, what potential there is, potential stops for mass transit, and some potential funding options. I don’t think we want to leave anything off the table at this point. There are some things that might be more attractive to us.”
If nothing changes, Moore said the region’s continued growth could be impacted.
“In our corridor, there will be more than half a million people in Williamson County by 2045,” he said. “The last transportation plan we had showed that we would be at complete gridlock by 2040 if nothing changed. Now we are looking toward 2045 and those growth factors continue to indicate a lot of positive growth, a lot of job creation, and a great economy. All of those things could come to a halt if we don’t solve this transportation problem.”
Gallatin Mayor Paige Brown said her community faces similar issues on transportation routes that travel south into Nashville.
“Within the city of Gallatin, there are two things our residents complain about most,” she said. “There is an increased amount of traffic in our city, and it takes longer to get across town than it once did. The second is the commute time to Nashville, which is a serious concern. We have proposed a Northeast Transportation (NET) Corridor. The idea of that is to widen Highway 386 because it is gridlocked every morning and afternoon, provide a northern loop in Gallatin that is connected to Highway 31, and take a four-lane road up through the northern part of Sumner County to the state line. We feel that is very important to our entire county. We also have the Highway 109 connector, which will change traffic for us and for Nashville. That will allow a lot of freight traffic to take an alternative route around Nashville.”
Moore said changing technology may help provide some solutions to the region’s transportation woes.
“Technology is changing very rapidly,” he said. “Things like Smart Corridors and autonomous vehicles can be part of the solution moving forward. With all of the options we have, we still have to change some of our habits. It’s estimated 95% of the cars on our highways only have one person in them. We can help our congestion now if there were more opportunities to carpool, even a few days of the week. Vanpools can be great options because if people work at one place they can ride share or share in the cost of the van, which is very economical.”
Brown said the plan looks into several options that rely on new and emerging transportation technology.
“We are also looking at options like a transit lane or a lane for autonomous vehicles,” she said. “The reality of where we are in Middle Tennessee is that we will have new technology on the roads before we have the funding for those transit projects. That reality is going to impact what our future transportation networks look like. Other parts of the country are using a lot of technology that we aren’t using here. There are also toll lanes where you pay based on traffic to get into the lane. The rate fluctuates based on the intensity of traffic when you’re using it.”
These new technologies may also benefit those who prefer more old-fashioned methods of travel.
“Some people are so excited for whatever technology might bring and would love to have public transit,” Brown said. “There are other people who will hopefully understand that those options will make it easier for them to drive their car into Nashville. You can’t pave your way out of traffic. There has to be another solution. That is why I like so much of this plan because it does touch on some of the other needs we have to make our traffic run more effective.”
Overall, the solution to the area’s congestion will require support from the entire region.
“The whole region is growing, and it’s not just one corridor that has traffic issues,” Moore said. “That’s why the Mayors Caucus has worked so closely together. The cooperation has been there, but I think it is more evident now. We are trying to promote the fact that we are all in this together and the only way to solve this is by working together. I think there is a lot of positive alignment from a lot of different areas to move transportation solutions forward.”
Likewise, citizen input and buy-in will be important moving forward.
“Citizens are going to have to work with us,” he said. “We have no dedicated funding at this point, which can scare people. There was a failed referendum in Nashville. We have to have some source of dedicated funding to pay for what we are going to do to solve this. That is important for us to work together as a region and in our communities build support for dedicated funding in the future. There has to be a revenue stream for things we do as cities and counties. You can’t keep the same revenue stream you had 20 years ago. Our cities are very frugal with taxpayer dollars, but if you are growing at the pace we are it does take revenue to provide service at a top level.”
Brown said, if left unchecked, the transportation concerns in Middle Tennessee could even have a greater impact than realized on the state as a whole.
“Everybody in this region is experiencing the same issues,” Brown said. “That is why this consolidated plan has to happen. Roads don’t stop at city lines or county lines, and traffic is the biggest issues we are all facing. We have to have a solution and that solution has to be regional. We know that none of us can do it alone. It’s not just a Middle Tennessee issue; it’s a state issue. Middle Tennessee is an important economic engine for Tennessee, and when your congestion starts to negatively impact your economy it becomes a state issue. This plan is going to help holistically alleviate a regional issue. You have to look at the big picture.”
Town of Smyrna Mayor Mary Esther Reed, who chairs GNRC’s Transportation Policy Board, said the planning process comes at a crucial time for a region that has reached a tipping point with traffic.
The organization launched www.solvethistogether.org as a resource center for government officials and the public during the process. The public is encouraged to visit the site to learn more about ongoing studies, upcoming meetings, and other ways to get involved.
“We can’t ignore our transportation challenges any longer,” Reed said. “Past initiatives have fallen short in communicating the importance of a multi-county approach or to get broad enough buy-in from Middle Tennesseans. The process for the Unified Plan will be collaborative, and our job is to work alongside TDOT to bring people together across the region to solve these problems.”
Nashville Mayor John Cooper also recently announced the Mayor’s Office and Department of Public Works has kicked off a comprehensive evaluation of traffic management operations throughout Metro Nashville. An assessment of Metro’s traffic and signal management system, a modern traffic control center, and staffing required to improve the efficiency, effectiveness, and safety for all traffic will be performed.
“Nashville’s traffic problems need smart, 21st century solutions, and smarter traffic management is low-hanging fruit to improve congestion on our roadways,” Cooper said. “There’s no good reason that our drivers should be spending 20% more than the national average commuting. I’m confident that my transportation team, led by Faye DiMassimo, and Metro Public Works will determine a right-sized traffic management solution for Nashville.”
The assessment will compare the region’s traffic to similar areas including metro Atlanta; Los Angeles; Anaheim, Calif.; Orlando, Fla.; Charlotte, N.C.; and Denver, Colo.
“We are working to build a Nashville for everyone and establishing equity in our transportation and infrastructure systems is crucially important,” Cooper said. “Folks need to be able to reliably get to job opportunities and other resources. We also know that traffic for people trying to get in and out of downtown Nashville is unpredictable, creating problems for the entire region. We need everyone’s voices at the table to ensure equitable solutions.”
For information about the Unified Transportation Plan or how to get involved with it, visit www.solvethistogether.org.