Taking notes on Tennessee's test run

The Music City Star in Nashville, Tenn., carries fewer than half the predicted number of daily, round-trip commuters.

Nashville's Music City Star, a commuter train similar to one proposed for the Charleston area, offers a cautionary tale for rail supporters here.

The good news from Nashville is that the Music City Star was put into service in 2005 for just $41 million, making it the least-expensive commuter rail project in the nation.

The 32-mile train serves six stations along a busy highway corridor, and ridership has increased sharply from a year ago, up by more than 35 percent in tandem with gasoline prices.

The bad news is that despite the increased ridership, the train carries only about 350 round-trip passengers daily, fewer than half the number predicted in studies.

That means operating subsidies are higher than expected, around $4 million a year, and local governments have been asked to contribute more money to keep the train running.

"We are working on legislation that would allow us to collect a tax, when the region figures out what it wants to do," said Allyson Shumate, Music City Star project manager.

A test case

The Music City Star is a Tennessee test case, potentially the first of five commuter trains serving Nashville.

"Until this funding issue is resolved, I doubt we will see more commuter rail here," said Ed Cole, chief of environment and planning at the Tennessee Department of Transportation.

Federal funds to reduce congestion and improve air quality are helping to cover the Music City Star's operating costs for now, but those funds are available for only the first three years of operation, which are coming to an end.

Ridership, initially projected at around 740 round-trip passengers daily, was to be considered a key measure of success.

"We still haven't met projections, but ridership is steadily increasing and we've had to add some buses," Shumate said.

Downtown shuttle buses are provided at no cost to train riders, who take them from the Nashville train station to their destinations. Parking at train stations in the suburbs also is free.

As with Charleston's proposed train, Nashville's system was designed to serve suburban rush-hour commuters who work downtown. Two downtown Nashville universities, Vanderbilt and Belmont, provide free or reduced fares for employees and students who rides the train.

Lessons for Charleston

"I think the most important lesson is to be very realistic in estimating rides, and consider the funding sources," Cole said. "We don't have a dedicated funding source, and that's an issue we're having to deal with."

Charleston's 2006 rail study estimates that a train serving Charleston, North Charleston and Summerville would attract more than 1,600 round-trip passengers daily. Jennifer Humphreys, author of the Charleston study, said the ridership estimates are conservative.

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, chairman of the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments' rail subcommittee, said he also is comfortable with the passenger estimates, despite Nashville's experience.

"I believe our numbers are very conservative, and not just because the price of gas has more than doubled since the 2006 study," Riley said.

He said the geography of the region, with rivers and marshes that limit transportation options and the availability of downtown parking, supports the projections for high train ridership. Nashville's population is significantly larger that Charleston's, but the rail line proposed in Charleston would serve a more densly-populated area.

As for having a dedicated funding source, the other issue raised by Cole, no funding source has been identified to cover the ongoing operations of a Charleston-area train. The estimated subsidy needed is at least $1.4 million yearly.

Another lesson involves shuttle buses.

Nashville offers free shuttle buses from the downtown train station to passengers' final destinations, and something similar would be needed in Charleston. The problem Nashville faces is that, as more people ride the train, more buses are needed, and they can cost more money than the additional train fares generate.

"That's not a cost-effective way of doing it," Shumate said.

And a final lesson: Federal funding paid most of the cost of Nashville's train, and Charleston-area planners have discussed seeking federal transit funds as well, but involving the federal government can be cumbersome and slow.

The process of winning federal appropriations and completing required studies was one reason it took nine years to get the Music City Star up and running. New Mexico relied on state funding and completed the first phase of its Rail Runner train in less than three years.