Seattle Transit Officials Applaud Nashville Plan

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Seattle has successfully passed 3 major transit referendums, where citizens voted to increase taxes in order to pay for public transportation.

In his first interview with Nashville media, Traffic Anchor Rebecca Schleicher sat down with a Seattle transportation official to talk about his experiences and lessons learned from the city seen as the crown jewel example of U.S. transit.

"The cost of doing nothing is so much extraordinarily higher (than the tax increases)," said Commute Seattle Executive Director Jonathan Hopkins, who estimates the cost of congestion is $3 billion in Seattle.

Hopkins is closely following Nashville's plan. And he says he's a big fan.

"Putting trains where you haul lots of people, putting buses where you haul a little bit less of lots of people, and connecting them all in a really thoughtful way," he said, listing, "the neighborhood centers and the tunnel to get them out of traffic. To me it just sounds like best practices."

But not everyone is as excited about the city's proposal.

Critics argue the 5 light rail lines cost too much and the massive bus expansion won't do enough to help congestion. Plus it will take up to 15 years to complete.

Hopkins says Seattle fought the same battles over its light rail, street car and commuter line.

"This is pretty typical of opposition. They'll say it does too much, it doesn't do enough, it's too late so let's do nothing," he said.

But while other "legacy" cities are losing transit ridership with trains and buses that haven't been updated in decades, almost half of downtown Seattle workers now take transit to their jobs, at 48 percent.

Only 25 percent of people still commute downtown by driving alone there. Hopkins says that means large businesses see the city, despite rapid urban growth, as a place where they can fit.

"If we care about the future, if we think Nashville’s economic prospects in the future are good, then we (need to) invest to meet that need," Hopkins said.

It's an idea one of the Seattle's flagship companies is looking for as Amazon searches for its second headquarters. Nashville is one of 20 cities considered a finalist to land the company.

"When Amazon started booming, the train came just in time," Hopkins said, referencing the light rail line that passed voter referendum in the 90s. Since that time Seattle watched Amazon grow from 5,000 employees to 45,000.

It helps that in Washington State large companies are required to incentivize employees to reduce single car commuting.

Seattle isn't stopping. Right now there's a plan in place to double the city's rail line miles to over 50 by 2023.

When asked why not just expand the bus system, or use ride share and vanpooling, Hopkins said they're all part of the mix in Seattle, which has the largest vanpooling program in the country. Even so, only 1.3 percent of commuters use it.

"A train moves more people in a singular corridor with less impact to the community than anything else, and that’s why they're in such consistent use throughout the world," Hopkins said.

But it's not all roses. Hopkins admits some of the city's projects have gone over budget. In fact the streetcar project is currently halted while the city looks at cost overruns and overspending. But he said that's not a reason to ignore the problem.

"Your roof is leaking, it's leaking really bad. Do you say you're not gonna replace your roof because the contractor may mismanage it?" he asked, "or do you replace the roof and manage the contractor well."

He recommends Nashville invest in its leaky roof before traffic brings the city's growth to a halt.

Opposition to transit:

In a surprise move Monday Council Member at Large and Mayoral Candidate Erica Gilmore announced she changed her mind and will now vote against the city's transit plan. She voiced concerns over low-income and minority community members she worries will be displaced with the development surrounding the transit system.

Gilmore was part of the Nashville group that recently traveled to Seattle to learn from the city along with the Nashville Chamber of Commerce.

"We have to do whats best for Nashville," she said at a press event when she announced her reversal on the issue, "Seattle's a little bit of a different demographic, the layout of the city is a lot different, it's really more condensed so it's one of those things we probably need to build up more density in ridership."

Another Council Member against the city's plan, Robert Swope, told Traffic Anchor Rebecca Schleicher he will debut a plan of his own Tuesday at 10 a.m. He would not disclose details ahead of time.

Stay with NewsChannel 5 for the latest on the growing list of alternative ideas along with an in-depth look at the city's plan through election day.

Early voting begins Wednesday and election day is May 1.

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