VOL. 111 | NO. 16 | Friday, January 24, 1997
Riding the rail
Regional system gathers support as officials look at funding
By GABRIELLE C.L. SONGE
The Daily News
After inching along for several years, metropolitan Memphis appears to be moving at warp speed in creating a regional mass transit system that includes light rail.
The mayors office, the transit authority and city and county elected officials are not only in support of the idea, they are coming together with a regional voice that reverberates in harmonic tones: light rail, light rail, light rail.
The Memphis Area Transit Authority hired an engineering-consulting firm, ICF Kaiser, based in Fairfax, Va., to study and design a regional light rail system.
MATA officials and Mayor W.W. Herenton presented ICF Kaisers three-corridor plan to public officials Wednesday.
Herenton announced he will appoint a steering committee to work with elected officials at the local, state and federal level to develop a light rail system. "Those individuals will have all of the resources of the city mayors office at their disposal," he said.
A major investment study needs to be prepared to secure federal funding for the project. The consultants estimated that it will cost $1 billion to construct the system in which Memphis would function as a hub. Three rail lines would extend to Millington, Collierville and Southaven in the model unveiled Wednesday.
The complete planning process for the light rail system is expected to take five to seven years.
Of major concern is how to fund both the construction and the operational costs which will require a subsidy.
Funding was the sole topic of a joint Shelby County Commission-Memphis City Council meeting held Thursday at the Cook Convention Center.
Eight City Council members and nine County Commissioners voted unanimously to recommend to their respective bodies to lobby the 100th General Assembly to amend the Tennessee Transportation Funding Act of 1997.
The proposed amendment, which was drafted by the Memphis and Shelby County Office of Planning and Development, would generate approximately $20 million to $25 million annually for metropolitan Memphis, according to planning director Dexter Muller.
If adopted, it would shift funds to Memphis and Shelby County without creating new taxes.
Members of the joint conference also discussed lobbying for a second initiative that would allow the local government to add, for example, a half penny to the gas tax to fund the operational deficit of a light rail system. Not all members favor an additional private act to finance the rail system.
However, City Council chairman Jerome Rubin did raise the issue, and he was supported by County Commissioner Shep Wilbun.
"The transportation aspect of this is almost a secondary benefit," Rubin told officials earlier. "It has the capability of becoming an economic development and a regional development tool. When I look around us, I see many other communities literally almost leapfrogging ahead of us in many important ways," he said.
Rubin attributed this to the absence of a unified voice. "It is time for us to speak with one voice," he said.
In advance of the joint session, Norris said, "Assuming we build some kind of a rail system, how will we pay to operate it?"
By the year 2020, officials expect the proposed model will accommodate 62,000 boarders per day. However, ridership fees are not expected to cover the operational costs. ICF Kaiser estimated that the annual operating cost would be $40 million.
Norris said state legislators seem to be receptive to the idea of looking at gas tax revenues for transportation funding.
"The gas tax money is a complex formula with a number of layers in it.," Norris said. "What Im interested in is something called the Bicentennial Parkway layer which is about three cents on the dollar."
Those dollars will be available as soon as the projects they fund are completed.
He proposes amending the gas tax law so it would use a population-based formula. "Our thinking is if we can propose an amendment that will allocate some of those Bicentennial funds to counties with larger populations, that should increase our share of revenues," Norris said.
This is the amendment that the joint Commission-Council voted unanimously to support.
On Monday at 8:30 a.m. the County Commission legislative committee will take up the issue. Norris said he hopes the amendment will be ready for the full Commission Feb. 3.
"That bill would go in the countys legislative wish list package that goes to Nashville for them to work on," Norris said. "We would hope the same process will take place on the citys side."
Ideally, all of this would be accomplished before the February deadline for filing bills in the General Assembly.