PHOTO: Chase Harper, a business development manager with the TMA Group, rode a Franklin Transit bus on Monday, June 11, 2018.//Brooke Wanser
By BROOKE WANSER
On a sunny Monday, Tessie Clune walks out of the CoolSprings Galleria mall, clambering into a Franklin Transit bus, heading to her home near Centennial High School.
A musician and artist who also works at the mall, Clune said she has been riding Franklin public transportation for seven years. She doesn’t own a car.
Clune said she chose to live in Franklin because of the transit system, which is a boon to her and her partially disabled mother, who has frequent doctor’s appointments at Vanderbilt University Health Center.
She likes being able to get around town on the transit system; at a dollar each trip, it’s far more affordable than owning a car, and, she said, better for the environment.
“It’s kind of like a lifestyle thing,” she said.
This year is the 15th anniversary of the creation of the Franklin Transit Authority, which was formed as a public private partnership with the TMA Group.
The group’s transportation solutions will also be a topic of discussion at Tuesday’s Transportation Summit, hosted by the county chamber of commerce at the Cool Springs Marriott.
The Transportation Management Association (TMA) Group is a nonprofit corporation created 30 years ago under the leadership of the first executive director Diane Davidson.
Stanton Higgs, the TMA Group’s business development and operations director, said Davidson was a “visionary” thinking of transit as a solution before traffic congestion enveloped Middle Tennessee.
Davidson also helped create the Franklin Transit Authority, which was voted into existence by the city Board of Mayor and Aldermen.
Since then, the TMA Group has continued to renew a contract with the city to operate the transit system.
Bus fares and city funding account for 30 to 40 percent of their budget, with 10 percent coming from the state and 55 percent federal funding.
Higgs remembered the opening day of the new transit line in 2003, when old trolleys gathered at the Factory at Franklin to take residents out for rides.
Though the TMA Group has operated quietly in the community for 15 years, public transit is nothing new to Franklin.
Perhaps Franklin’s first large-scale public transit system was the Franklin to Nashville Interurban electric train. The downtown station was located where Boutique MMM stands today on the square.
Ward 4 Alderman Margaret Martin, a lifelong resident of Franklin, said she used to take the Interurban bus to Nashville on weekends as a teenager.
She and her friends would go see a movie at one of the theaters on Church Street, then go to the Krystal for a meal, which cost around 75 cents.
Then, they would cross the street to the department stores, perhaps trying on ladies’ hats, before heading home to Franklin.
The train ran from 7 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., carrying both passengers and freight.
“Parents never worried about our safety,” Martin said, reminiscing. “All was well, and a great way to spend a Saturday.”
The Interurban converted to gasoline powered buses in 1942, ceasing operations completely in 1969.
Current transit system and new routes
Though the Franklin Transit Authority does not offer rides to Nashville, fixed routes throughout main thoroughfares within the city recently expanded with more stops.
Red Line: Runs from Fieldstone Farms south on Hillsboro Road towards Del Rio Pike, looping through the Hard Bargain neighborhood and Mt. Hope Street, then heading along 5th Avenue to Natchez Street and through the neighborhoods along West Main Street.
The majority of the push was aimed at the Cool Springs area, which has become increasingly congested as residences and office spaces spring up.
Buses which used to come along every hour now make stops along the route every 30 minutes, said TMA Group Business Development Manager Chase Harper.
One route, which previously went along Murfreesboro Road, was discarded when the system overhaul occurred.
In addition to the new routes, Harper pointed to other transit options the TMA Group offers.
Vanstar is their business-oriented carpool group for those who commute long distances to work.
This summer, a rollout of half-price fares for children ages 12 to 18 nods to the days when Martin took the Interurban to Nashville on the weekends.
Residents can also order transit on demand, what is known as TODD, by calling the transit authority for a reservation up to 24 hours in advance.
The cost of the curb to curb service ranges from $2 one way to $6 round trip, depending on age and whether the passenger has a disability.
TMA Executive Director Debbie Henry said TODD was begun in 2007 by former director Diane Thorne, who passed away earlier this year.
Anyone can use TODD, but the service is especially valuable for Franklin residents with disabilities.
Higgs said about 20-30 residents with more severe disabilities utilize the service, but estimated around 250 people with other types of disabilities also ride TODD.
The service started about eight years ago, right before Higgs began working with the TMA Group.
“That was a big transition,” he said. “We’re the only city in this area that runs a transportation on demand,” he said, noting that other public transit systems must have a similar services under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Each bus has the capacity to carry passengers who rely on wheelchairs, but a strategic plan to make stops more ADA-friendly is also in place.
“Sidewalks are just now getting put in in a lot of places,” Higgs said
He said the city has undertaken a study on how many miles of sidewalk exist in Franklin.
“What we’ll do alongside of them is budget within our budget monies to put ADA-accessible pads into the stops and develop plans throughout the whole system,” he said.
In addition to ADA changes, stops will have overhangs to shield riders from inclement weather. The TMA Group plans to roll out the changes within the next five to 10 years.
A polarizing issue
After the recently failed transit referendum in Nashville, everyone wonders what is next.
“’Transit’ is kind of a polarizing word,” Higgs said “What’s happening with our industry is more about overall mobility.”
He pointed to Franklin’s push to connect sidewalks and greenways, as one alternative to the rapidly outpaced road construction taking place.
Ultimately, all roads would connect.
“We spent a lot of time talking those things out,” Higgs said.
While some say Franklin is behind the transit game, “other cities are even further behind,” he said. “They are where we were at 15 years ago.”
“The supply and the demand is not close yet,” Higgs said of the reason for Nashville’s failed transit vote.
“The majority of people are not interested in something that doesn’t really help them out.”
Public transit family
Maria Avila speaks broken English, but her enthusiasm for the bus and the community who rides is evident.
On Monday, she got off work from her job at Jason’s Deli in Cool Springs and headed south.
She uses the bus to ride to and from work, and also to take her children to Chick-Fil-A on the weekends, she said.
Avila said she knows most of the drivers, joking around with them regularly.
Clune said Avila, along with the other riders and drivers, “they become part of your family.”