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The long road to Nashville

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Motorists driving out of Sumner County into Nashville are facing longer commute times, prompting more discussion on other transit options. RICK MURRAY

For thousands of residents driving to Nashville each workday, the trek keeps getting longer. Some officials say they expect that commute time to increase as more residents move into the area.

"The daily travel and commute times are getting longer and longer," County Executive Anthony Holt said. "There's more congestion and that's going to increase."

Holt spoke recently at an informational meeting hosted by the Regional Transit Authority of Middle Tennessee (RTA). Held at Vol State, it was an update to the nMotion strategic plan being studied in Davidson County and what the next steps could mean to Sumner County residents.

There are currently two large Tennessee Department of Transportation projects under construction locally. A new interchange at I-65 in Portland will tie into State Route 109; and State Route 109 improvements from South of River Bridge to US 70 are also being constructed. In addition TDOT has plans to widen Vietnam Veterans Boulevard (State Route 386) from four to six lanes, with a preliminary engineering study to begin in 2018.

All of that will help ease congestion Holt said, but more people will settle in Sumner County and eventually residents will have to decide if they want to continue to battle those long drives, or consider alternative transportation sources.

"We cannot build our way out of this congestion," Holt said. "One thing's for sure - we can't build a wall around Sumner County. They are coming here."

Steve Bland, chief executive officer of the Nashville Metropolitan Transit Authority and RTA, said although not everyone would participate in alternative transit, Sumner residents need to begin looking in that direction.

"People will continue to drive, but we are going to need to diversify our transportation modes," he said.

Some of the proposed transit modes could include dedicated lanes for commuter rail, light rail, and bus rapid transit. Forced carpooling or toll roads could someday also be considered, Bland said.

He pointed to the success of the Music City Star - a commuter rail into Nashville from Hermitage, Donelson and Lebanon. The Star not only takes residents into Nashville, but brings others into these other areas for work - making it a plus for local businesses.

"The business community is telling us there is a need for this," Bland said.

Bland also mentioned Metro's goal of putting light rail along Gallatin Pike in Nashville, which is generating strong private development interest and will likely extend into Sumner County, he said.

Sumner voters could make final decision

Jo Ann Graves, president and CEO of Transit Alliance of Middle Tennessee, said whether Sumner County ever has alternative transit is ultimately up to the residents.

"As our region is growing, at some point in the future, we will need another option, but it will be up to the people to decide," Graves said, adding that in 2018 voters in Davidson County will have a referendum to decide whether they want other transit modes.

Governor Bill Haslam's IMPROVE Act, which became effective July 1, not only raised the gas tax across the state to pay for needed road projects, it also allows for a referendum in certain counties, including Sumner, which could impose a surcharge on taxes already being collected. That surcharge would be capped and would be earmarked specifically for transit projects in the county.

"If it takes you and extra half-hour to get to work, what is that going to cost you?" Bland asked. "Lost productivity? Time you are not spending with your family?"

Bland said suggested steps for Sumner County to move forward with a referendum included gathering opinions from residents regarding transit, determining the cost and preparing a plan for raising new revenues.

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