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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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