The Music City Star: Commuter rail returns to Nashville

by Gary Gaston
Contributor

One morning last spring I awoke at 5 a.m., (two-and-a-half hours ahead of my normal weekday rising) for a special adventure. The purpose of my early start was to play commuter on the Music City Star (MCS).

I drove out to Lebanon, the point of origin for the Star, Nashville’s new commuter rail service. The occasion was to mark the six-month anniversary of MCS, which connects Lebanon, Martha, Mt. Juliet, Hermitage and Donelson to Riverfront Park Station, at the foot of Broadway in Downtown Nashville.

I volunteered (along with five co-workers from architecture firm Looney Ricks Kiss) to administer surveys on behalf of the Regional Transit Authority (RTA), which operates the MCS. The surveys are used by RTA to rate the success of and needed improvements to the service.

The Star comprises two double-decker passenger cars and a locomotive emblazoned with a patriotic red, white and blue color scheme. It makes an attractive and bold statement in the dark hours of an early spring morning, with its loud horn proclaiming arrival. I boarded and took a window seat, intent on enjoying the scenery and tranquility of the ride. But, my seat was next to an especially chatty bunch of passengers, who had obviously formed a close bond during their six months of mutual commutes. Their warm smiles and friendly conversation reminded me that I was not in a typical commuter train. I was embraced as a newcomer and quickly made to feel as though I had been always been a part of the group. Yes, Southern Hospitality is at its best on the Star.

I was equally impressed with the service. The train was on time, clean and offered the promised stress-free commute, depositing me at Riverfront Park Station exactly 55 minutes after boarding.

For those passengers not walking to downtown offices, a fleet of buses awaited and whisked people to such major employers as Vanderbilt, Belmont and the Medical District.

Walking the ten blocks to my office in Cummins Station, I felt a sense of pride. While not a daily commuter, I’d had an urban experience in a city not particularly known for its urbanity. I found myself smiling as I walked.

The Music City Star is the first commuter line in RTA’s plan to re-link Nashville to its regional satellite cities (e.g. Franklin, Dickson, Murfreesboro, etc.). What a lot of people forget (or perhaps never knew) is that commuter rail is not a new concept for Nashville. Commuting by rail existed extensively up until the 1950s, when the automobile overtook it as the transportation of choice. Interstates killed commuter rail, and in a strange twist of fate, freeway congestion is now serving as a catalyst in rail’s comeback.

While cities around the country are reinvesting in alternative forms of transportation, it is a concept known as Transit Oriented Development (TOD for short) that will make mass transit in cities like Nashville truly viable. TODs are mixed-use communities built within approximately half-mile walking radius of a transit station. They offer residents a mix of housing types, retail, office and open spaces in an easily walkable environment (think the Hill Center but attached to a train station). The main reason TODs work is because everything you need is within walking distance, including your home and daily transportation to work.

According to a AAA survey in 2006, the average American pays almost $8,000 annually on car maintenance, insurance, fuel and other associated costs per vehicle. Commuting via train, therefore, can cost significantly less than driving, as many couples find it easy to give up one car when living in a TOD.

Though Transit Oriented Development does not currently exist along the Star’s route, it certainly isn’t difficult to imagine them being built in the future. Lebanon and Mt. Juliet seem the most viable short-term candidates, though over the long term, TODs could be planned at each of the five stops, providing a ridership base and ensuring the long-term success of the Star.

While visions of Transit Oriented Development may be dancing in the heads of planners these days, it seems that current riders of the Music City Star have more modest hopes. On my ride back to Lebanon at the end of the day, I read some riders’ suggestions about ways to improve the Star’s service.

Several commuters suggested the idea of a bar service during the evening ride home. My mind flashed to an image of myself lounging on the Star’s comfy padded seats, watching the downtown skyline blur in the background, while slowly nursing a Stoli martini. Now that would be urbane.

If you would like to learn more about the Music City Star visit the Website at www.musiccitystar.org. If you would like to learn more about Transit Oriented Development visit www.transitorienteddevelopment.org.

Gary Gaston is an urban designer for Looney Ricks Kiss Architects (LRK).  Gary was a principal contributing author of the Nashville Civic Design Center book The Plan of Nashville: Avenues to a Great City, published by Vanderbilt University Press in 2005. Gary also serves on the boards of Nashville CARES and the GLBT Chamber of Commerce.

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