Williamson, Inc.’s First Friday event for this month focused on change, featuring former mayor of Franklin and Tennessee Department of Transportation Commissioner John Schroer. While the conversation started as one about changes in career, leadership and family matters, it quickly shifted into a discussion about changes to come in Middle Tennessee transportation.
Schroer was brought on as TDOT commissioner by Gov. Bill Haslam in 2011 at a time when, according to Schroer, he had no experience with TDOT.
“For the life of me, I had no idea why he wanted me to do TDOT, in all honesty,” Schroer said.
“And we were talking about that at some point in time, and he said, ‘So, what do you know about running TDOT and this, that and the other?’ And I go, ‘Nothing.’”
However, Schroer learned the position and served as commissioner for two terms, retiring just this year. So, of course, the small crowd at E|SPACES on Friday took the opportunity ask him about the increasing traffic issues in the area.
Schroer came out strong against adding more lanes to existing roads and even against transportation alternatives like light rails, which was heavily discussed at the recent Williamson Inc. Transportation Summit, mainly by keynote speaker Jackie Millet, mayor of Lone Tree, Colorado. Lone Tree, much like Williamson County’s close proximity to Nashville, is located just outside of the larger urban area of Denver.
“Asphalt will not get us out of a congestion issue,” Schroer said.
“That’s not the solution, and rail is not the solution “A lot of people think that’s the answer; it’s not the answer. The answer is technology.”
Schroer explained that “TDOT is now building the most technologically advanced corridor in the country from Murfreesboro to Nashville,” which will sync traffic signals and link to an app, which will allow drivers to see what speed they need to drive to hit green lights. He mentioned that this kind of intelligent roadway is necessary in the shift to self-driving, or autonomous, vehicles.
Schroer said more lanes will draw more people to that route, which will not resolve congestion, but he also suggested cutting the traffic problem at the source and having people come into work at times other than 8 a.m., a practice that many businesses refer to as flexible scheduling.
“Across this country and in the state of Tennessee, we are using our interstates at about a 20 percent capacity,” Schroer said.
“It doesn’t make any sense at all for us to add capacity to something that is already only working at a 20 percent capacity right now. Better utilization, proper utilization is the answer to that — technology, flex times.”
President and CEO of Williamson, Inc. Matt Largen commented that many companies in the area have implemented flex timing to avoid this issue.
Schroer also mentioned that a shift to autonomous cars will help avoid human errors on the roads, which are responsible for a majority of traffic accidents, explaining that this will help clear up crash-related congestion.
Some, though, are nervous about this shift. Independent Sales Director at Mary Kay Jan Onstott said it’s hard to let go of the wheel after driving her whole life.
“But I know, with people texting and driving so often now and not paying attention to what they’re doing, a car could do it better,” Onstott said.
She explained she experiences stand-still traffic on her way to the Brentwood YMCA every morning, but only during the school year, a problem financial advisor at Edward Jones Brandan Chasteen has experienced as well driving to work.
Chasteen agreed with Schroer that automation is the future of transportation because of its efficiency and forward-looking nature.
“At some point, people aren’t going to own cars anymore. Having a driver’s license would probably be a weird thing,” Chasteen said, adding that public-use, self-driving cars will probably be available when and where people need them in the coming years.
“Even if people said they were going to use [a light rail], how outdated and how much of a waste of time and money would that be 20 years down the road, again, when there’s a car just waiting on me?”
Mike Towle, a self-publisher and founder of Win-Win Words, is co-writing a book on traffic in Middle Tennessee. He said technology is one of the best traffic solutions because it uses current roadways and doesn’t require heavy restructuring, a main reason Schroer said he is against adding lanes or a light rail.
“It is just a complete waste of taxpayer dollars. There is a better way to use them, and technology is the answer,” Schroer said.