By JOHN McBRYDE
Debbie Henry, the executive director of the TMA Group, has been with the nonprofit for nearly 16 years.
The TMA (Transportation Management Association) Group was established in Franklin in 1988, becoming the first such entity in the Southeast and the 35th in the nation. Under its “umbrella” are the VanStar program developed in the early 1990s to support the use of van pools and the Franklin Transit service that uses trolleys and small buses for moving folks around throughout Franklin.
The TMA Group is also involved in other services, such as the Clean Air Partnership, and hasa connection with four Franklin Special School District schools in a carpooling program called School Pool.
Franklin Home Page: VanStar, the region’s vanpool program, started in the early 1990s. How has it performed in the nearly 30 years it has existed?
Debbie Henry: The program serves 14 Middle Tennessee counties. Vanpooling is a form of public transportation, and is the most economical and the fastest to implement. … The personal savings in transportation costs for people who participate in the vanpool program are incredible. Most people who participate in this have an annual savings of anywhere between $3,000 to $3,500 a year. That’s incredible. It’s all about getting people back and forth to work in an affordable way.
FHP: The Franklin Transit service has expanded in the past 16 months. How has that worked out, and how far has this method of commuting come since it was launched in 2003?
DH: The program started with three vehicles and two very small routes. Over time we increased our fleet. We added an electric hybrid, becoming the first transit system in Tennessee to have an electric hybrid. The fleet today consists of vintage style trolleys used for special events and festivals, and the smaller buses. They’re more efficient as far as fuel, maintenance and service. Our expansion has gone extremely well. We added 100-plus stops, established more shelters, increased our frequency. And the big thing was moving the hub here [on Columbia Pike] from The Factory. Our partnership with Columbia State Community College has worked out very well, with students there riding for free. We also provide service to Centennial and Franklin high schools, for those students in the school-to-work program.
FHP: Can you talk about new strategies or technology tools that are being implemented or planned to help increase ridership?
DH: It’s amazing the differences technology has made on the current programs we have, but the impact they’re going to have in future planning is truly incredible. It already makes the system more efficient, monetarily, and just the workability. We are very, very excited about adding the mobile app, the mobility software. All of our ride-matching components are technology-based and so they’re all online. We’ve been working with the city of Franklin to have signalization priority [at traffic lights] ready for our buses. The program we have with FSSD called School Pool is hosted online. Just think how in the last five years the advances in technology have been overall, and we’re seeing those definitely have a positive impact on what we do every day.
FHP: What is being done to help with traffic issues in Cool Springs?
DH: There’s a lot of wonderful, positive synergy from stakeholders that are addressing that. There are many advocates. Again, it’s not one magic thing. It’s everything from a great sidewalk network so people can safely get on and off transit, or walk or ride bikes and feel secure in doing that. Infrastructure is important. For instance, if the signalization of buses could happen, it would make a huge impact.
FHP: What should citizens know about the recently proposed South Corridor Study that covers transportation concerns in Davidson, Williamson and Maury counties, and how can they get involved?
DH: Citizens should attend the sessions, and provide input and comments. All of those will be taken back and processed and become part of the study. Involvement is huge. Nobody knows this area better than the people who live, work and play here, so those are the voices we need. Everyone’s voices are incredibly important. (The Williamson County Public Library on Columbia Pike in Franklin will be the site of a meeting on April 30, while the Brentwood Library on Concord Road will host one on May 2. Both run from 5:30-8 p.m.)
FHP: What are the biggest obstacles to getting more people to use Franklin Transit?
DH: Awareness. You can’t say that enough. People are beginning to look at alternative modes of transportation as something that has a place. We really feel that by making smarter and sustainable commute choices that are available, we can begin to lessen the traffic congestion in our fastest-growing communities and our economic corridors. I’ve always said transit isn’t for everybody, but for those that use it, it’s everything.