'Nashville definitely has room to grow the ... range of service options'

New MTA head ready to tackle city's mass transit challenges

Last week, the Nashville Metropolitan Transit Authority and Regional Transportation Authority named Stephen G. Bland chief executive officer, effective Friday, Aug. 25.

Bland (pictured) replaces Paul Ballard, who is now with the Fort Worth Transportation Authority as president and CEO. He will earn an annual salary of $195,000.

Bland, 52, arrives in Nashville (read more here) as Mayor Karl Dean continues to pursue a bus rapid transit system that has yielded both support and opposition.

Post Managing Editor William Williams sat down with the new MTA leader to get his take on the city’s mass transit efforts.

Compared to similar sized cities, where does Nashville rank with its mass transit efforts and offerings?

One of the things that attracted me to Nashville was the opportunity to grow service and grow the system. So far, I’ve ridden the system over a dozen times and always experienced a high quality of service — buses were on time, they were clean and the operators were courteous and knowledgeable.

However, Nashville definitely has room to grow the quantity of service we have and the range of service options. Not counting AccessRide service, we only offer about 0.58 service hours per capita each year. This is about half of what’s offered in comparable cities like Austin and Charlotte; and even only about half of what’s offered in smaller state capitals I’ve worked in, like Hartford and Albany. In Tennessee, we’re about dead even with Memphis in this regard, but we actually offer less service per capita than either Knoxville or Chattanooga. To adequately support the overall mobility needs of Middle Tennessee moving forward, I think we’ll need to grow our service offerings much more quickly than the overall rate of population growth in the region.

Do peer cities that offer light rail and/or a modern street car (e.g., Austin, Charlotte, Salt Lake City, etc.) have an advantage on Nashville?

I absolutely believe that cities that offer comprehensive, multi-modal public transit services have a competitive advantage, and I think that advantage is even more pronounced in a city like Nashville than it is in many other places. Largely, Nashville is recognizing its economic growth through its creative energy, rather than assets like industrial might or natural resources.  Excellent public transit is a critical amenity that people who work in the creative economy seek in a place to live. This shows up in survey after survey (as positives in places where it exists, and as negatives in places where it does not), particularly among younger workers. Even in a traditional industrial city — like Pittsburgh, where I came from — much of the economic growth is in creative industries that are attracting younger employees from outside the region because of close proximity to excellent public transportation and a broad range of urban amenities.

However, I also think the region will do itself a disservice if it only focuses on one new mode or one new project or if the debate about public transit is restricted simply to what mode we adopt. In my opinion, the cities that have absolutely knocked it out of the park in terms of boosting both the relevance and usage of transit (Austin, Charlotte, Salt Lake City, Portland, Dallas, Denver, etc.) have also been very strategic about their large-scale capital projects, incorporating them over time as part of a comprehensive long-term system. They’ve also developed these new product offerings in lockstep with major improvements in all services, like traditional bus service and door-to-door and flexible services. I lived in Dallas in the mid-1980s, when no light rail existed, and no one thought you could ever get Texans out of their cars. Now, 30 years later, Dallas has more miles of light rail than any city in the country. However, more than half the transit trips in Dallas are still taken on the local bus system, which also has improved considerably and was designed to complement the region’s rail offerings. The same is true in Denver, where light rail expansion has been fast and furious, but about three-fourths of all transit trips still take place on the (much improved) bus service.

Beyond that, the very best examples of cities expanding the role of transit in day-to-day life have complemented their transit system development and investments with fundamental shifts in other public policy realms like housing and land-use policy, and related infrastructure development.
What are your thoughts on The Amp? What are your favorite elements and a shortcoming or two that might need addressing?

First off, I love the branding. Connecting a term that conveys the essence of Music City, with an overall image of “turning it up a notch. I also love the corridor. Connecting the university and health care centers on West End through the core of downtown Nashville and on to the burgeoning east end, past LP Field, I think the corridor is a winner. It reminds me of the downtown Pittsburgh to Oakland corridor where we were advancing bus rapid transit when I left the city. The “bells and whistles” associated with the project (high-level platforms, real-time information, off-board fare collection, etc.) are also first rate and would clearly set a high standard for new transit in Nashville.

On the “shortcoming” side, I’d say it’s not yet evident to me how we plan to incorporate the Amp into a broader transportation system for the region. Is it intended to be a standard for how we develop high-end transit services in other corridors? If so, what are those corridors?  Is it intended to serve as a trunk line around which others services will be designed?  What would those service models look like? I suspect that these issues and many others have been discussed, but it isn’t clear to me yet.

On The Amp theme, you are very familiar with bus rapid transit. Please explain your background with BRT and offer your takeaways on this mode of transit.

I’ve ridden and been heavily involved in bus rapid transit projects and services for at least the last 12 years of my career.

In Albany, I was executive director for the Capital District Transportation Authority (CDTA) as we completed planning and moved into the design phase for what is now the “BusPlus” bus rapid transit line running between downtown Albany and downtown Schenectady. In Pittsburgh, we operated the South Busway, which originally opened in the late 1970s and is arguably the first bus rapid transit facility in the United States. We also operated the Martin Luther King, Jr., East Busway (which now carries almost 30,000 one-way passenger trips each weekday) and the West Busway. During my time in Pittsburgh, we also kicked off the alternatives analysis for the downtown Pittsburgh to Oakland corridor, with an eye toward an on-street bus rapid transit application. Finally, in my most recent duties for Michael Baker International, I was program director for the CTfastrak Bus Rapid Transit project, a brand new, 9.5-mile dedicated busway connecting downtown Hartford and New Britain. Along the way, in these roles, I’ve ridden and closely examined a number of bus rapid transit applications of  various intensity in the United States, including the HealthLine in Cleveland, the Silver Line in Boston, MetroRapid in Los Angeles and SelectBus Services in New York City.

My main takeaway is that, if it’s properly done, bus rapid transit can be an outstanding transit application that can achieve many of the same goals of rail at a fraction of the cost, in a fraction of the time, and with a fraction of the invasiveness that you’d likely see in rail construction. However, I think the risk with bus rapid transit is that it can become easy to water it down too much in the interest of cost reduction or other “compromises” to the point where it becomes barely discernible from typical local bus service.

How do you feel about Nashville MTA’s BRT Lite in general?

I do think it’s a nice enhancement in some key corridors that can be accomplished quickly and very affordably. Again, though, I think it’s important to decide how BRT Lite fits into our overall product offerings.

Finally, I’d say this generally as an observation about transit in key corridors around Nashville, I think we need to offer greater frequency and span of service in these corridors if we really want to attract a higher market share to public transit. This isn’t a criticism of the MTA — I absolutely recognize the balance among competing priorities for scarce resources. However, when I mentioned earlier that I think we need to grow the amount of service we provide more quickly than future population growth in this region, I would generally say that improvements in peak and off-peak service frequency should likely be a major part of that focus.

When will the new electric buses be online for the Music City Circuit?

The seven all-electric vehicles are in production now and should be arriving before the end of the calendar year. They are zero emission buses, not hybrids as we are operating today on the MCC routes.

Your employment as CEO of the Port Authority of Allegheny County in Pittsburgh was terminated without cause by a 5-3 vote of the Port Authority Board in February 2013. Many folks supported you and felt the termination was unfair. Would you acknowledge that your detractors felt they were sincerely making some legitimate criticisms of your leadership?

During my tenure, we had to make a lot of difficult decisions in a highly charged and very visible environment to assure the long-term viability of public transit in the Pittsburgh region. Without doubt, many constituencies are absolutely correct to say that they “lost” in that process, whether they were transit employees who saw their benefits reduced through collective bargaining concessions, or specific riders, neighborhoods, businesses or communities who saw service reduced because of shifting population patterns and demographic trends.  In my position, I was probably the most visible individual in that process, so it’s completely understandable that I would be a target of that anger and anxiety.

In my opinion, there is a natural life cycle to any leadership position and, once that life cycle has been exhausted, it’s counterproductive to both the individual and the organization to stay together. Prior to the start of the process that led to my termination, I had already indicated to our board chair that I was not going to seek another renewal to my employment agreement (which would have expired in June of this year). At that time, I thought new leadership would have been good for the organization and new challenges would be good for me. My hope had been to get the organization through the state funding debate that culminated with the passage of Pennsylvania Act 89 last summer, then plan for an orderly transition and move on to something else.

With all that said, I’m very proud of what our team accomplished during my tenure — board, staff and community. And I can’t really think of anything I would have done differently there. I’m also very happy and proud that Ellen McLean, who was chief financial officer during my tenure, was ultimately selected to replace me and that the current initiatives being advanced by the authority (expanded intelligent transportation systems, bus rapid transit in the downtown to Oakland Corridor, service additions in overcrowded corridors, and further advancement of the Regional ConnectCard smart card program) were originally planned during my tenure. There has been no fundamental change in direction.

On this note, what were your main accomplishments at the authority?

Our team accomplished quite a number of things, but I guess I’d highlight a few that think will have the most lasting impact on transit in Pittsburgh:

1. We gained community consensus, advocacy organization endorsement and unanimous board approval for an unprecedented restructuring and consolidation of transit services, resulting in 63 percent average increase in ridership per route, significant increases in service levels in core corridors, and new partnerships with outside agencies to sustain low-patronage “lifeline” services. Despite financial constraints that mandated service hour reductions exceeding 25 percent in a region facing stagnant population growth, this service redesign allowed the authority to retain 96 percent of its ridership, despite the elimination of 700 positions, 300 revenue vehicles and one operating division. The strategic planning that culminated in this redesign actively engaged thousands of riders and residents, generating tens of thousands of comments and suggestions.

2. We negotiated two successive concessionary labor agreements with our unions, significantly reigning in post-employment benefits costs (pension and health care) and flattening the rate of growth in overall health care expense. Both were accomplished without a work stoppage or other service disruption, and both were ratified by over 90 percent of voting union members.

3. We reduced the projected cost of a $500 million-plus Federal New Starts subway extension by over $35 million. The project was completed on time, for approximately $25 million less than the approved Federal New Starts budget, and change order value was restricted to about 1 percent of overall project cost. To support startup, we negotiated sponsorships with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Rivers Casino, Alco Parking and the Stadium Authority of the City of Pittsburgh to underwrite lost fare revenue, allowing us to extend the Downtown Free Fare Zone to these stations. The subway extension generated about 5,000 daily transit trips at opening and as many as 15,000 trips for major events at Heinz Field and PNC Park.

4. We led a smart-card based fare collection system upgrade consortium with seven regional transit agencies in Pittsburgh, leading to a coordinated smart card system branded under the term “ConnectCard.”

5. We advanced our partnerships with area universities, incorporating “universal transit passes” with the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University and Chatham University. By 2012, these partnerships were generating in excess of $8 million annually for the authority and accounting for approximately 12 percent of total ridership.

Will you find a place to live in Nashville that will allow you to take a bus and/or bike to and from work?

That’s certainly the goal. My wife Yvonne is in charge of the house hunt. I gave her a wide berth in terms of the kind of house we get, but my one request was that it be in a neighborhood where we can walk to shops and restaurants, and have good access to transit. Right now, her search is focused in the neighborhoods of East Nashville, and there are some very good choices there.