Mayor Barry: How to pay for transit is the challenge

The Tennessean
Joey Garrison

With the Nashville area Chamber of Commerce jumping on board Wednesday, momentum is building for an ambitious regional transit plan in Middle Tennessee headlined by light rail on major Nashville corridors and commuter rail that extends to surrounding counties.

But assembling a plan, which is an ongoing effort, will likely be the easy part.

Over the next year, Mayor Megan Barry faces what she acknowledges will be the real challenge — finding a way to begin paying for a plan that could cost at least $5.4 billion over 25 years to execute.

It would likely mean identifying a dedicated local funding source in Nashville.

“We’re going to have to be diligent in how we consider how we pay for it,” Barry said Wednesday. “That is exactly our challenge. How we pay for this is going to be the conversation that I look forward to all of you in this room helping to lead as we figure out those funding mechanisms.”

Barry was addressing leaders and members of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce gathered in downtown Nashville to hear recommendations outlined in the chamber’s new Moving Forward policy report on transit. The report recommends Nashville use as “a starting point” the most far-reaching of three regional transit system scenarios recently outlined by Metro Transit Authority consultants through its nMotion planning process.

In addition to what is an estimated $5.4 billion plan — one packed with proposals for high-speed buses, light rail and street cars — the report advises a wide range of other costly proposals. Among them: relocate the CSX-owned Radnor Rail Facility near 100 Oaks in Nashville in order to open the city’s rail lines to possible commuter rail.

MTA’s board of directors is set to adopt a final strategic transit plan late in the summer. But none of the plan’s details will ever get implemented unless a funding plan emerges.

Paying for transit expansion in Nashville — which will present a tough test politically for Barry — could come from a combination of federal, state and local revenue streams, as well as fares. Nashville will be expected to take the lead.

Barry, who has called for “big and bold” action on transit, has said she wants to have a transit funding proposal by the beginning of 2017, though she’s not specified what she favors or where she’s leaning. In addition to local funding, Barry has said state funding will be “critical” and wants to be ready when the Tennessee General Assembly convenes.

Though there’s no favorite, possibilities for local transit funding could include increasing the local share of Nashville’s sales tax or its local share of the gas tax. State legislation that would have enabled the latter, however, stalled in the state legislature last year.

According to the chamber’s new Moving Forward report, Nashville’s MTA is one of the few large transit agencies in the country without a local dedicated funding source.

The Middle Tennessee region pays an average of $87.58 per capita on transit, compared with an average of $136.23 per capita at peer regions such as Atlanta; Charlotte, N.C.; Denver; Louisville, Ky.; and Memphis.

“Lack of local funding source hampers our region’s ability to compete for large federal grants that can provide as much as 40 to 50 percent of the capital costs of constructing a fixed guide-way transit line,” the chamber’s Moving Froward report reads.

Some Middle Tennessee mayors say they’re ready to help explore funding options. For the past seven years, the area’s members have taken part in the Middle Tennessee Mayor’s Caucus to discuss transit issues.

Clarksville Mayor Kim McMillan, who chairs the Regional Transit Authority and was on hand for Wednesday’s chamber event, said the entire region, not just Nashville, will have to help solve the funding issue because it’s a regional plan.

“It’s something that we need to look at now,” she said. “We are already behind. We need to catch up with a lot of the communities around this country.”

Wilson County Mayor Randall Hutton, chairman of the Nashville MPO — which helps direct federal dollars to transportation projects in Middle Tennessee — said finding a regional transit plan that stakeholders agree on needs to be done first before funding comes together.

“Funding is the most important (piece) once you get a plan,” Hutto said. “But you’ve got to have a good plan and a solid plan that everyone will buy into.”

The state’s willingness to help fund a regional transit system is a major question mark. Though Gov. Bill Haslam has said the state needs to be part of the region’s transit solution, the legislature two years ago helped derail former Mayor Karl Dean’s transit proposal called The Amp. That plan called for a bus rapid transit line on Nashville’s West End Avenue, Broadway and East Nashville.

But because of recent state action, the private sector could play a role in regards to funding. Barry and the chamber have both applauded state enabling legislation passed this past year that allows the state and local governments to contract private businesses to build, oversee and profit from large-scale transit projects in Tennessee.

Examples of public-private partnerships, often called P3s, include rail lines in Denver and Baltimore.

The chamber’s Moving Forward group is studying funding options and plans to outline options in a report later this year.

Meanwhile, pending Nashville ordinance proposed by Metro Councilman Jim Shulman would create an end-of-year deadline for MTA to present funding options to the council. The bill cleared a second of three votes on Tuesday.