Tennessean: Downtown Nashville merchants raise concerns over multi-billion-dollar transit plan

To Brenda Sanderson, co-owner of Legends Corner, The Stage and Second Fiddle, some parts of the multi-billion transit proposal for Nashville make sense, including a direct transit line from the airport to downtown.

But the debt the city would take on and years of construction for a downtown tunnel outweigh the potential benefits, she said.

"I don’t know how you are going to tell me it won't affect business in that corridor,” said Sanderson, whose Legends Corner is across from a planned access point for the proposed tunnel. “I personally just cannot be for, particularly, a tunnel that could put one of the most iconic parts of our city in jeopardy."

Tourism officials in Nashville have given the transit proposal their endorsement, but downtown business owners have mixed outlooks for the massive project and whether it will benefit downtown or the city overall.

The plan for a $936 million tunnel running under 5th Avenue, forecast to entail four years of construction, is at the heart of their hesitation or opposition.

The 1.8 mile tunnel would run from Music City Central to Lea Street and would include a station at 5th Avenue and Broadway, near Bridgestone Arena.

The $5.4 billion transit plan also includes 28 miles of light rail, rapid bus transit and improvements to existing bus services. Nashville residents will decide on May 1, through a voter referendum, whether it is funded.

Advocates for the plan say it is needed to address the region's rapid growth, expected to climb by one million residents by 2040, and opponents aligned with the NoTax4Tracks political action campaign say the plan is too expensive and does not solve the congestion problems.

For Barrett Hobbs, an owner of Whiskey Bent Saloon and Doc Holliday's Saloon, the construction of the downtown tunnel is among several concerns he has about the transit plan. Still, he is willing to support the proposal, given the strain that transportation issues have put on employees.

“We are continuing to have an uphill battle on getting staff,” Hobbs said. “One of the expenses they incur is traffic."

Employees and musicians often have to leave their homes one or two hours before an evening shift or gig begins because of interstate congestion, and they also face steep parking costs downtown. To compete with other venues outside the city's core, downtown businesses have had to pay significantly more in labor costs, Hobbs said.

In the past five years, Hobb’s own commute from Donelson has lengthened from 10 to 15 minutes to 45 minutes on average, sometimes longer than an hour. He is concerned about what will happen in the next five years.

The city should have begun addressing transportation challenges years, even decades ago, he said. If no action is taken, the city’s quality of life and tourism market is at risk.

“We need to do something,” Hobbs said. “The path Nashville is on right now is not sustainable.”

Butch Spyridon, CEO of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp., has endorsed the plan as a benefit to the city's tourism market. The proposed transit line from the airport helps half of Nashville's visitors get downtown and the plan overall will help hospitality workers, especially those working early or late hours, he said. With several more hotels under construction the staffing issue is a significant issue for the city.

“When Opryland theme park closed, when Sept. 11 happened and when the flood occurred, those were disruptions," he said. "The transit plan will enhance our ability to move around visitors and hospitality industry employees and make attractions like the Nashville Zoo, The Hermitage and Cheekwood, as well as Nashville International Airport, much more accessible through improved frequency on local routes and new lines. Transit construction will have minimal impact and be a temporary inconvenience worth the greater benefit upon completion.”

Predators CEO Sean Henry has also endorsed the plan for similar reasons. The Bridgestone Arena is located at the planned access point for the proposed tunnel.

“Providing Bridgestone’s visitors and employees with affordable, reliable transportation in and out of downtown is paramount for us to continue to be a premier destination -- and revenue generator -- in the future,"Henry said. "We need extended bus hours that give the second shift workers of downtown safe public transportation when they get off. We need a mass transit system now and for our continued growth that will take cars off our roads and help break up the gridlock of our streets”

Mark Bloom, an investor in downtown properties including The Palm and Margaritaville, said the transit plan proposed is not the right solution. His objections include a sales tax increase, tunnel construction, the advancement of autonomous vehicles and the debt associated with the project, estimated at $2.5 billion.

Based on projects built in other cities, the four-year timeline for tunnel construction is unrealistic, he said.

“We do not think this specific plan will benefit our tourism market or our city,” said Bloom, a supporter of NoTax4Tracks and whose firm Corner Partnership has a stake in the Hilton Nashville Downtown hotel. “It is even highly likely to damage the tourism market and our city over the next decade.”

There have been multiple tunnels built downtown in the past, including a four-mile downtown system for Metro's District Energy Systems, a Nashville Electric Service tunnel at Korean Veterans Boulevard and tunnels from the old convention center to the Bridgestone Arena.

But, the scale of the proposed tunnel, would significantly exceed those. Mayor Megan Barry's plan estimates the tunnel would run 40 to 50 feet deep and 60 feet wide, but officials said further design and engineering plans after the referendum will determine the exact depth of the tunnel. Dump trucks, construction, staging, noise pollution and debris will disrupt downtown businesses, Bloom said.

“We will have so much disruption on 5th Avenue and into our tourism district,” Bloom said. "The noise disruption to all of this live music, the traffic disruption from all of these trucks and the blasting, it will not go on for six months, it will go on for years."

Bloom argues that the transit line for downtown tourists is not needed, as evidenced by the 100,000 people attending the July 4 event, the New Year’s Eve celebration and CMA Fest. With Uber and Lyft offering rides to attendees, parking is less of an issue, he said.

“Nobody with smart, advanced planning has trouble getting downtown,” he said. “What city that has a huge tourism district and a compacted urban core does not have some traffic and congestion?"

While ridesharing companies have helped residents and tourists get around more easily, they are not immune from downtown gridlock when shows and events end on any given weekend. Under price surging models, Uber and Lyft rides can sometimes reach three figures for passenger groups on peak tourism nights.

Bloom said he is not against downtown investments. He supported the building of the downtown arena, the Titans arrival and the Music City Center. If the plan extended beyond Davidson County, included state and federal funding commitments and if he saw more evidence it would relieve congestion, Bloom said he would be more supportive.

Edward Smith, owner of several downtown boot stores including Trail West and Big Time Boots, said he also is opposed to the transit plan but for different reasons. He wants to the city to focus on public safety before transportation needs.

"Our priorities our backwards," Smith said. "We have got to take care of the safety aspects of downtown before we start bringing more people down there."

By Jamie McGee

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