With multiple Middle Tennessee mayors on hand, state lawmakers rolled out legislation Wednesday they say could set a framework for future mass transit projects in the Nashville region and send a signal to the private sector to be part of it.
The bill, which has strong bipartisan support, would allow both the state and local governments to contract private businesses to build, oversee and profit from large-scale transit projects in Tennessee.
It’s only enabling legislation, but with mass transit solutions proving elusive in Nashville, the public-private partnership proposal is getting billed as a way for the state legislature to take a step toward addressing the region’s growing traffic congestion.
“We’ve been talking about the problems for some time,” said Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, who has co-sponsored the bill with Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville. “And if you drive on I-24, or drive on I-65, or come in on I-40, it’s continuing to get worse every day.
“This sends a signal to those consortiums in the private sector to come here to Tennessee and start putting your investments here for infrastructure that will take us further down the road than we’ve ever seen before.”
Supporters say the bill to allow what are commonly called “P3s” for transit would provide “one more tool in the toolbox” to address transit.
They also claim that tapping a private company to oversee transit services would be significantly cheaper than leaving it to the government.
The public-private partnership bill has attracted rare accord among many Democrats and Republicans in the legislature.
At a Wednesday press conference to unveil the proposal, Ketron was joined by Yarbro and Rep. Charles Sargent, R-Franklin, who is the sponsor of the House version of the bill. Others at the event included Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Murfreesboro; Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville; and Rep. Jason Powell, D-Nashville.
Franklin Mayor Ken Moore, who chairs the Middle Tennessee Mayors Caucus, Rutherford County Mayor Ernest Burgees, former Gallatin Mayor Jo Ann Graves, members of Nashville Mayor Megan Barry’s administration and representatives of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce were also on hand.
“At the end of the day, there’s no Democratic traffic jams or Republican traffic jams,” Yarbro said. “While Sen. Ketron and I might be in different political parties, our districts include some of the busiest corridors in the state of Tennessee.
“The ‘P3’ initiative will hopefully create a framework for us to have innovation and investment in public transportation throughout this region,” he said. “This allows different counties to be able to work together on a project and combine sources of revenue and identify the best path forward.”
Twenty-nine states have some type of public-private law, but few have them just for transit. Public-private partnerships have enabled Denver to build a rail line from its airport to downtown and facilitated light rail projects in New Jersey.
The arrangement would give companies the ability to build infrastructure on public land and rights-of ways. Both parties would share financial risks, responsibilities and transit services.
The state proposal come as the Metro Transit Authority is in the process of finalizing a long-term transit master plan for Nashville.
Among three possible scenarios is an ambitious $5.4 billion plan that would have a regional focus and include light rail on major corridors, commuter rail from Nashville to Clarksville and so-called “freeway bus rapid transit” on interstates.
Meanwhile, Ketron has pushed a monorail to connect Murfreesboro and Nashville.
“We’re going to need all the help we can get, and this bill is going to go a huge ways if we can get it passed toward really making options available to solve our congestion and mobility in Middle Tennessee,” said Steve Bland, Metro Transit Authority CEO.
Transit has emerged as a top issue in Nashville and surrounding counties as the area has grown. An additional 1 million people are expected to move into Middle Tennessee over the next 25 years, but the area lags behind comparable regions when it comes to transit systems.
“Those new challenges may require new solutions,” said Marc Hill, chief policy officer of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, which backs the legislation.
He pointed to Florida, Texas and Virginia as states similar to Tennessee with similar laws.
The state’s discussion on transit comes two years after Republicans in the state legislature helped defeat Nashville’s proposed bus rapid transit project called The Amp.
But while that project dealt with a single corridor in Nashville, the idea of regional transit has gotten a warmer reception in the legislature.
Gov. Bill Haslam recently said the state must play a role in regional transit efforts in Middle Tennessee, but did not identify a solution. He didn’t commit state funds for transit, either.
State lawmakers on Wednesday weren’t ready to say whether or when the state would be in position to commit significant funds for transit. Instead, they framed public-private partnerships as a way to infuse private funds faster than public dollars could ever be approved.
“We can get there much quicker with private funds doing the financing, and we put up the property or whatever it takes, and they get it up and running,” Ketron said.