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Nashville's unlikely ally will determine the future of the region's $6 billion transit overhaul

Tennessee   ·   Public Transportation   ·   Nashville Business Journal

The future of Greater Nashville's transit system depends on an unlikely ally: Tennessee legislators.

To get a dedicated stream of funding, Middle Tennessee officials will need the General Assembly to pass enabling legislation to allow them to raise taxes specifically earmarked for transit-related expenses through ballot initiatives.

Selling the state Legislature on Greater Nashville's $6 billion nMotion plan could prove to be quite difficult for local officials, particularly since the General Assembly played a role in the demise of former Mayor Karl Dean's proposed Amp bus project.

To be sure, the region's transit overhaul is not the Amp. For instance, those involved with the region's current $6 billion plan are not expecting funding from the state, whereas the Amp required $35 million from the Legislature to get off the ground.

Optimists would say not having a dollar sign attached to any potential bill gives transit advocates an advantage as they approach legislators come January. But the fact remains, the General Assembly still stands in the way of Middle Tennessee's ability to raise taxes.

Jo Ann Graves, CEO of the Transit Alliance of Middle Tennessee and former Gallatin mayor, said local officials asking for enabling legislation is not only reasonable but also is the most democratic way to secure funding.

"If a county has the bravery to put [funding] on a ballot, then what's wrong with letting the people decide," Graves said in a recent interview. "I still think we're a democracy."

Blaine Strock, market president for the Bank of Tennessee, recently graduated from the Transit Alliance of Middle Tennessee's ninth Transit Citizen Leadership Academy. Strock said he remains optimistic the state will pass enabling legislation in the upcoming session, but added sentiments surrounding the conversation show securing such legislation is a toss up.

"I've heard some say no way, and I've heard some say they're hopeful," he said. "At the end of the day, it has to pass."

Strock said educating not only the public but also state legislators will be what makes or breaks nMotion, adding in the coming months the transit academy will rely on its graduates to spread the word about why having mass transit options in Middle Tennessee is vital for the region's economic future.

In November, a committee with Moving Forward, a Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce-funded coalition, revealed the results of a study conducted by the Victoria Transport Policy Institute to devise options for paying for the Nashville region's nMotion plan. The seven options included everything from direct taxes on residents to fees that impact the area's growing tourism industry. Ultimately, estimates show half of the plan's $6 billion price tag will have to come from local sources.

If fully funded and built during the next two dozen years, the region's plan will extend transit service within a half-mile of 1.55 million jobs in Middle Tennessee, which is more than triple the reach of the region's existing system. The plan also includes extended operating hours, expanded services and light rail.

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