The annual Williamson Inc. Transportation Summit picked up the baton in the race to find transportation solutions after the transit referendum failed in Nashville this spring, and as Williamson County grows with more people … and more cars.
The summit featured two sessions in which speakers discussed the state of transportation in the county, city and region in front of a crowd of 300 business leaders, elected officials and professionals at the Franklin Cool Springs Marriott.
Panel 1 speakers included Steve Bland, chief executive officer of Nashville MTA and Michael Skipper, executive director of Greater Nashville Regional Council. Panel 2 speakers included Franklin City Administrator Eric Stuckey, Franklin Engineering Director Paul Holzen, and Franklin Long Range Planning Supervisor Kelly Dannenfelser, who discussed the local angle on transportation.
Bland emphasized that the transportation solution does not exist “in a bubble.”
“Transportation cannot be separated from other community issues including housing and Metropolitan schools,” Bland said.
According to transportation professionals, development sprouts where transit and schools are constructed. Many times, Williamson County Director of Schools Mike Looney has said that when new schools are built, new rooftops follow.
However, despite overwhelming growth and more cars, Skipper said Williamson County is in a prime position to be able to make decisions about its future in transportation and to create funding mechanisms to support it.
With the Southern Corridor Study, conducted by the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), underway, Skipper said the information could help move regional collaboration forward in solutions and funding options.
Skipper emphasized that in order to gain constituent buy-in and create real solutions, the choices shouldn’t remain black or white.
“This is a good time for you all in Williamson County,” Skipper said.
“This is the 5th [recent regional] transit study conducted by the Metropolitan Planning Organization … this is your opportunity to work with partners in Maury and Davidson County to define projects and policies. This is not just a planning study that sits on the shelf. You have the ability to finance now – a tangible opportunity in front of you.”
Skipper encouraged leaders to begin collaborating on funding future transit initiatives, and he also suggested that the more diverse options offered, the better.
“If we only offer the public two choices – to invest billions in transit infrastructure or don’t, it’s hard to make a decision to invest,” he said. “[But when we offer] investing in transit instead of tolls at every road and changes in travel behavior and other alternatives, then we are comparing solutions and not just a study.”
All in all, Skipper said it’s a collaborative effort.
Diverse options in reducing traffic
However, not all solutions have to involve roads and rail, he said. Flexible scheduling, for example, at area businesses is just one solution that could reduce congestion in a major way.
Nissan Senior Manager Corporate Communications Chris Keeffee addressed the company’s strides in allowing employees the option of flex scheduling.
“Our human resource policies in telecommuting and working from home help to reduce congestion on the roads,” Keeffee said. “Flex times on when to come to the office and when to leave the office helps to reduce traffic at key times.”
Williamson Inc. President and Chief Executive Officer Matt Largen, moderator at the summit, said that flex scheduling not only aids in reducing cars on the road, but also in retaining and recruiting employees.
“Employees are measured by how they produce, not by how much time they are in the building,” Largen said.
According to the Harvard Business Review, 96 percent of U.S. business professionals say they need flexibility but only 47 percent have it, regarding work schedules and working remotely, for example.
Another way to reduce traffic is ridesharing and park and ride lots located near transit spots, which panelists discussed. In a video clip, Mark Cleveland, founder of ridesharing app Hytch, suggested that offering incentives help to change behaviors in getting from place to place. The app tracks each mile in which passengers and drivers share a ride. Users earn a penny a mile, or more, in designated regional areas for cash back.
Dannenfelser also added during the Panel 2 presentation that mixing housing, commercial development and connectivity like trails and sidewalks will reduce traffic congestion, as well as ride-sharing and transit “so more people don’t have to use cars as often.”
City road projects improve traffic into the future
Stuckey said the city’s 10-cent tax hike in 2016, partially dedicated to transportation projects and road maintenance, is benefitting Franklin’s comprehensive road improvement plans.
He also called Franklin’s road impact fee index for developers as “the most sophisticated” around, in which developers pay a fee for their contribution, or traffic impact, to arterial and collector roads.
Stuckey also verified that revenue generated from the gas tax increase as a result of the governor’s IMPROVE Act has helped to get city road projects moving.
“Most major roadways in Franklin are state routes and [gas tax from IMROVE Act] is a critically important funding source,” Stuckey said. “We have a million more per year in street maintenance.”
Over the past five years, the city of Franklin has spent $170 million in capital projects with 84 percent transportation related, which is expected to double in years to come.
Paul Holzen gave an update on upcoming projects, including the Mack Hatcher Northwest Extension Project. Currently the last step of a land acquisition process in being completed, which has set the project behind. Though bidding for the project is expected to commence in December.
Insight from other cities
By video at the summit, Mayor of Lone Tree, Colorado Jackie Millet shared the area’s experience in implementing light rail. The community mirrors similarities to Williamson County.
“We are thrilled to have light rail but recognize it is not the only solution,” Millet said. “We partner with our largest employers to fund a shuttle system.
“It’s flexible, reliable transportation and gets cars off roads in the city.”
Millet also shared that the city’s investment and partnerships in constructing bike lanes, light rail and expanding shuttle services have contributed to a better quality of life, provides the best transportation options for people and attracts businesses.
Such solutions as light rail might not be too far off the grid for Williamson County.
In the Cool Springs Multimodal Transportation Network Study conducted by TMA in 2014-15, the document identifies and proposes the need for light rail in the Cool Springs area in the next 20 years. Also, Franklin’s own existing transit system, Franklin Transit Authority is celebrating 15 years in motion. Due to demand and high population growth, FTA added 100 new stops last year and cut ride times by half.
“It’s important that we lead this conversation. I think the point is that this conversation turns into action,” Largen said after the summit.