Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Nashville mayor eyes mass transit

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If the convention center was a colossal and contentious public project, wait until you see Nashville Mayor Karl Dean's next undertaking: a multi-year, multibillion-dollar effort to renovate Middle Tennessee's mass transportation system, the Tennessean reports. The payback to residents of the greater Nashville area, Dean says, will be a mass transit system to rival that of Denver, Charlotte and Austin.

In recent weeks, Dean has regularly pointed to Denver as an example for how to overhaul regional transportation. In 2004, the Mile High City created a sales-tax-funded light rail system at a cost of $6.5 billion. That's a number 11 times bigger than the Music City Center's $585 million price tag.

"The money is scary," Dean said. "But when you think of the region - and the Denver project is a big region like Middle Tennessee - as connecting Gallatin, Hendersonville, Clarksville, Murfreesboro, Franklin, Wilson County ... it's going to be an extremely expensive thing and it's going to take years to accomplish."

Dean cautioned against delaying a massive transportation overhaul any longer.

"I think transportation is so important, long-term, for the quality of life and economic viability of this region, that we have to do it," Dean said.

Improving mass transit in the Nashville area has been a topic of conversation for many years, but there is evidence that the issue is moving past idle chatter.

Last year Dean formed the regional mayors' caucus, which has met three times and will be meeting regularly on the issue of exploring a growing menu of mass transportation options. Following the lead of Denver, Dean also formed the Transit Alliance, which is a collection of business interests throughout the region that are supportive of the issue.

The Transit Alliance's job will be to educate and engage the public on the issue, similar to what the Music City Center Coalition did for the convention center.

Led by attorney Charles Bone, the alliance recently began the work of soliciting financial support from the business community.

Already Bone has signed Vanderbilt University as lead donor; the university has promised to contribute $100,000 per year for the next three years to the Transit Alliance. Dean called private sector support "more important" than support from elected officials.

Last year, the General Assembly passed legislation that allows city councils to create sources of funding to pay for mass-transit initiatives. The legislation also allows for a public referendum to approve any new funding source. Although public officials have been careful not to speculate on what the funding source could be, Nashville Councilwoman Emily Evans said a thorough public awareness effort would be needed to advance the cause.

The public's part in the process will begin soon, as the Nashville Area Metro Planning Organization, which serves as the transportation planning body for the Midstate, prepares to update a 30-year master plan that will be unveiled in October, said MPO Executive Director Michael Skipper.

Talk of the area's mass transportation system has centered around light rail connecting Nashville with outlying urban areas such as Gallatin, Hendersonville and Murfreesboro, in addition to Bus Rapid Transit lanes along Nashville's busiest thoroughfares.

The region has tried its hand at commuter rail already. The Music City Star line between Wilson County and Nashville, installed in 2006, has had limited ridership. Nashville's Metro Transit Authority took over management of the line last year amid major financial concerns.

Although federal funding will pick up some of the cost, Dean pointed out that Nashville has missed out on some federal dollars because of a lack of a funding source dedicated to such projects.

Another stumbling block appears to be soliciting support for dedicated funding from a 10-county region with drastically different transportation needs.

The public transportation needs of Gallatin vary from those of Brentwood, and so does the appetite for a new funding source.

Still, Brentwood Mayor Betsy Crossley said members of the mayors' caucus have been extremely supportive of the initiative.

"You can only put so much asphalt down," Crossley said. "I think as I-65 gets busier and busier and busier, we have to find an alternative way to transport people."

Although Skipper said the MPO public process would begin in the coming weeks, no official public meetings have been announced.

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