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Nashville Area MPO better positioned to invest in options that support livability

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An announcement this past week by U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood could put Wilson County and other Middle Tennessee counties in a much better position to pay for transportation projects that support a higher quality-of-life, according to a statement issued by a regional planning group.

According to the Metropolitan Planning Organization, LaHood’s announcement represents a dramatic change in existing federal policy.

Under the new program, the MPO says the Obama administration has proposed new funding guidelines for major transit projects, with a focus on livability issues such as economic development and environmental benefits – in addition to cost/time savings, which were the primary criteria under the Bush administration.

For Wilson County and other Middle Tennessee counties, “this means that the Nashville Area MPO would have the ability to more boldly advance a forward-thinking, strategic vision: to recommend projects for federal funding that emphasize environmental, community and economic benefits – not just cost-effectiveness tests that are limited to how much transportation projects shorten commute times, thereby potentially escalating suburban sprawl and traffic congestion in urban areas of medium density, like that of greater Nashville,” said Michael Skipper, executive director of the Nashville Area MPO.

A prime example of transportation planning to support livability is the MPO’s Northeast Corridor Mobility Study, launched in 2007 with an eye toward anticipated improvements in federal policy, as announced by LaHood. The Northeast study –a comprehensive planning effort for a 30-mile segment northeast of Nashville – focuses on transportation strategies that would better support the community between downtown Nashville and Gallatin, providing a fresh approach to understanding how transportation and land use decisions affect one other – and, ultimately, economic development. 

“The Northeast Corridor Study has been a critical first step toward realistic evaluation of pioneering regional transportation opportunities – including passenger rail and bus rapid transit.

“We are extremely pleased to receive news of Secretary LaHood’s long-awaited announcement on these changes to how projects will be selected for federal grants. For many years, urban American areas of our scope and size have been limited in our ability to compete for funds that would encourage smart, sustainable growth by increasing density and developing a transit-friendly environment. With these proposed changes in policy, we’ll be much better able to plan for a future that supports a high quality-of-life for the people who live and work here,” Skipper said.

As part of the proposed changes, the Federal Transit Authority would immediately rescind budget restrictions issued by the Bush Administration that focused on how much a project shortened commute times in comparison to its cost.

“We’ll finally be able to make the case for investing in popular streetcar projects and other transit systems that people want – and that our old ways of doing business didn’t value enough,” LaHood said last week.

By comparison, the Nashville Area MPO’s 2007 Southeast Corridor Study was conducted under the previous administration’s policy, which barred funding for any major transit capital projects that did not meet a minimum rating ($24) on a cost-effectiveness index, measuring only how much a project would cost per total hours saved daily by an estimated number of riders.

The MPO’s 2007 study recommended transportation options limited to incremental additions to MTA (bus) and RTA (Music City Star) service to meet the pressing needs of transit demand in the corridor, building ridership in the short-term, until investment policies could be shifted to focus on transit corridors and transit-oriented development patterns.

“This new approach will help us do a much better job of aligning our priorities and values with our transit investments,” said Federal Transportation Authority Administrator Peter Rogoff. “No longer will we ignore the many benefits that accrue to our environment and our communities when we build or expand rail and bus rapid transit systems.”

For more information on both the Nashville Area MPO’s 2009-10 Northeast and 2007 Southeast Corridor Studies, full project reports are available online at www.nashvillempo.org/northeast, and www.nashvillempo.org/southeast.

The Nashville Area MPO includes Davidson, Rutherford, Sumner, Williamson, Wilson and parts of Maury and Robertson counties.

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