The coronavirus pandemic slowed down an ongoing study investigating possibilities to improve transit along the Interstate 65 corridor south of Nashville, but planners hope to present some potential projects to the public soon.
Gathering feedback about which of those options make the most sense for Williamson County will be difficult because of the need for social distancing. Planners hope to use digital tools to reach out to residents.
The coronavirus has also dramatically changed attitudes about public transportation at a national level as well as traffic patterns in Middle Tennessee, with many people now working from home. It’s not clear how long those changes will last, which complicates the task of predicting the effect of new transportation projects on congestion.
The goal of the South Corridor Study is to identify shovel ready projects that can address traffic congestion through Davidson, Williamson and Maury Counties.
It took about 29 minutes to travel from Franklin to Nashville in 2010. The trip from Spring Hill to Nashville took about 36 minutes. Planners expect those travel times to double by 2040 without infrastructure improvements.
Community meetings gathering input for the South Corridor Study started in April 2019. Throughout 2019, the Greater Nashville Regional Council, which is leading the study, continued to gather feedback from residents about the best ways to improve transit.
In September, the regional council presented feedback from those community meetings showing that residents wanted modern, impactful transportation improvements. Although, the feedback didn’t show a consensus on the best types of improvements.
By the end of the year, GNRC Chief Communications Officer Michelle Lacewell said the council felt like it was getting close to completing the months-long study.
In early March, a tornado knocked out power at the regional council’s office. A week later, the coronavirus outbreak forced the group to close its offices. Work on the study essentially stopped while planners regrouped.
Regional council staff eventually settled into a new routine and continued working on the study remotely. The council hoped to present recommendations in June, but the delay pushed back completion of the study by several months.
Now, planners are finalizing some potential proposals for new infrastructure projects. Those proposals could include commuter rail, light rail transit or bus rapid transit. The group has also developed some proposals for improvements to existing infrastructure, such as intersections improvements, upgrades for I-65 and increasing existing bus service.
The next step will be meeting with local officials to determine which proposals to present to the public for further feedback.
Public outreach for the next phase of the study will look totally different from previous meetings. Last year, the meetings included dozens of people working closely together on large maps.
The coronavirus outbreak makes it difficult to gather in large groups, so the regional council is preparing to conduct outreach digitally.
“Getting feedback from our stakeholders and public officials will be important because we want them to feel confident in the outreach we're doing to inform the final decision,” Lacewell said during a webinar presented by the Transit Alliance of Middle Tennessee in May. “That is going to be our biggest hurdle, to do effective public engagement so that we can wrap up the study.”
The coronavirus’ effect on local traffic patterns is also throwing a wrench into the planning process. According to data from the tech company Unacast, the average distance that Williamson County residents traveled dropped by about 70% by early April. Since then it has nearly climbed back to pre-pandemic levels.
A survey in May of 25,000 people conducted by IBM Institute for Business Value, found that nearly half of adults to regularly used public transportation will now use it less or avoid it altogether. The same survey found that about half of respondents want to work primarily from home. It’s not clear how long those effects will last or what they look like locally.
“I think one of the big challenges will be determining how much of the changes we've experienced are going to be permanent or semi-permanent,” Lacewell said during the Transit Alliance webinar. “Congestion was something that people felt a lot before, so there was greater interest perhaps in making improvements … If they don't feel it anymore will that lessen the feel of an emergency to make change. That could impact us.”
While those changes will complicate planning, Lacewell said the regional council still feels confident in the information the study has gathered so far. The bigger challenge will be contenting to gather good information from the public without hosting big meetings.