Two years after the Tennessee legislature helped derail Nashville’s proposal for a bus rapid transit line called the Amp, the future of mass transit in Middle Tennessee is again getting attention at the state level.
But this time, early signs indicate the state could help facilitate Metro’s next transit endeavor. That outlook is strengthened by unprompted remarks last week by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, who said the state needs to be involved in regional mass transit efforts in the Nashville area.
Although transit funding remains a major question, multiple bills filed this legislative session would complement Metro as it eyes a possible plan for a regional transit system that could take decades and billions of dollars to build. Among them is bipartisan legislation co-sponsored by Sens. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, and Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, that would allow public-private partnerships for transit projects and transportation in Tennessee.
The two lawmakers have organized a news conference Wednesday to formally roll out their proposal, which is sponsored by Rep. Charles Sargent, R-Franklin, in the House.
Twenty-nine states currently have similar public-private legislation, which allows state or local governments to contract with private entities to oversee large-scale transit projects. Both parties share the financial risks, responsibilities and transit services.
Yarbro and fellow Nashville Democrat Rep. Bill Beck have also introduced a bill that would allow buses to access shoulders or right-of-ways of interstates and highways in Tennessee. Commonly called “freeway BRT,” this arrangement enables buses to whiz by backed up cars during congestion. Nashville Mayor Megan Barry, among others, has touted the idea as an inexpensive way to expand transit options.
Haslam stopped short of identifying a specific transit solution – nor committing any state funds – last week but seemed to deliver his most direct comments to date on Nashville’s transit needs.
“We’ve got to figure out some way to address mass transit and to be able to not just build more roads and bigger and wider roads because that won’t solve our problem,” Haslam said in a speech at an event sponsored by the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce.
“I don’t think that anybody who lives in Nashville can say, ‘We’re not going to have to figure out a plan around mass transit,'” he later told reporters. “I don’t know what that is. But if there is a plan the state’s going to have to be involved because again it’s going to be a regional plan.”
In 2014, Republicans in the GOP-controlled legislature led the way in passing legislation to block then-Mayor Karl Dean’s Amp project for Nashville’s West End Avenue and Broadway. While that proposal focused on a single corridor – and garnered criticism because of it – Metro is currently exploring a regional-focused plan.
As part of its nMotion transit planning process, Metro Transit Authority officials unveiled three possible transit scenarios that range in scale and cost. MTA is set to adopt a final plan by the summer. The most ambitious is an all-encompassing regional system that includes light rail down major corridors and commuter rail connecting Nashville and Clarksville. Its projected cost is $5.4 billion through 2040.
Two of the state proposals currently on the table — public-private partnerships and buses-on-interstate shoulders – have each been floated as components of such such a system.
Steve Bland, executive director of MTA, said the public-private partnership bill would let Tennessee duplicate the sort of arrangements that enabled Denver to build a rail line from its airport to downtown. Elsewhere, he said public-private partnerships facilitated two light rail projects in New Jersey.
“Having that framework is a really effective tool to have in the tool box,” Bland said. “They can take a wide variety of forms. And that’s frankly, I think what the intent is: to start the conversations with the private sector on what their appropriate role is.”
He said the legislation, which is broad in scope, is geared toward long-term transit or transportation road projects: “How do you essentially take advantage of what the private sector and public sector have to offer in terms of sharing risk?”
Ketron, the Republican senator from Murfreesboro who has co-sponsored the bill, said the ability to enter into public-private partnerships would allow for the financing of projects that wouldn’t be considered otherwise. He said the bill would enable local and state governments to “accelerate projects, encourage innovation, and maximize financial resources.”
“And it sends a signal to the private sector that the state is open to a new type of business relationship that invites their participation,” Ketron said.
In the fall, Ketron met with Barry, the new mayor of Nashville, to discuss the idea of “freeway BRT” on Interstate 24 between Rutherford and Davidson counties. Each of MTA’s three proposed transit scenarios released last month includes the concept for some combination of interstates 24, 40, or 65.
“Anyone who has driven in Middle Tennessee in the last six months knows we have to do something and do something now,” said Yarbro, who has sponsored legislation that would allow mass transit on highway shoulders. “This proposal provides new flexibility that would make transit a stronger alternative and hopefully helps with the congestion problems we’re facing
“I think you’ll see a lot of bipartisan work around issues related to transportation this year because we all know it’s a priority,” he said.
Neither of these bills addresses what will be one of the biggest transit barriers for Middle Tennessee: funding. Metro hasn’t identified a dedicated funding source for transit, nor has the state.
An avenue for dedicated funding would be created by local-option gas tax legislation introduced last year by Sen. Paul Bailey, R-Sparta, and Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville. The bill, which failed to gain traction last year, would enable local governments, including Metro, to choose to increase the tax on gas locally for funding transit. The legislation is up again up for consideration this spring.
With Haslam making it clear he won’t pursue a statewide gas tax hike this session, Clemmons said his bill “becomes even more important because … it empowers local governments to raise revenue at the local level.”
Clemmons said he’s pleased that Haslam has recognized the need for a transit system in Nashville, but said “it’s concerning to me that there is a refusal to lead and take action on this issue right now.
“That’s why I am pushing my bill that actually does something,” he said.
But not all bills proposed this year would benefit mass transit.
Republican-sponsored legislation flagged by some transit advocates would prevent gas tax revenue from being used on anything but highways, bridges and other transportation infrastructure.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga and Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, singles out several areas that gas tax revenue could not fund, including pedestrian bike trails and paths, sidewalks, parks and greenways.