VOL. 133 | NO. 119 | Thursday, June 14, 2018
View From the Hill
Midstate Transit Future is Paved With Tired Ideas
By Sam Stockard
If you ask state Rep. William Lamberth, Davidson County voters gave a resounding answer on the future of mass transit in this region. Based on their overwhelming defeat of an early May referendum, they don’t want to raise taxes for mass transit, preferring to be more like Atlanta and Los Angeles and less like New York.
“I think the future of Tennessee runs on pavement. I really do,” says Lamberth, who calls the Nashville plan a “fairy tale.”
The Portland Republican says more emphasis needs to go into building roads into and around Nashville. For instance, Highway 109, which is undergoing a $50.9 million widening from U.S. Highway 70 to Gallatin, could provide the opportunity for a northern loop around Nashville if the state proceeds with sections into Robertson and Cheatham or Dickson counties down to I-40 west of Nashville.
Lamberth even backs the concept of double-decker interstates through Nashville, an idea U.S. Rep. Diane Black, a Republican gubernatorial candidate, threw out in the days immediately after the mass transit plan’s defeat.
“I’m all for it. I think Congressman Black and others I’ve talked to are for any option we can put on the table that’s gonna make sure people can come in and out of Nashville in a safe and fluid manner that’s gonna get people in and out quickly during rush hour,” Lamberth says. Mass transit could be part of the solution, he adds, but that will likely be in the form of buses, small vans and ride sharing.
On the other hand, Lamberth doesn’t think dredging up the old proposal for the northern I-840 loop makes sense, especially with 109 well underway. The section into Gallatin is supposed to be complete in November 2020.
Black, in a statement released immediately after the transit plan’s death, called for double-decker interstates, in addition to completing the north loop of I-840 to take commercial traffic out of downtown Nashville. She doesn’t mention double-decker roads in a new TV ad but doubles down on 840
“We need more lanes, not trains,” Black says.
The Gallatin Republican who represents the 6th Congressional District also suggests convening Middle Tennessee counties to come up with a master plan for the region. (That’s been happening for several years through the Regional Transit Authority and Transit Alliance of Middle Tennessee, but they’re sort of like a tree falling in the forest. Nobody seems to be listening.)
She also wants more support for President Donald Trump’s infrastructure plan, as well as more federal funding for roads, which gives state and local governments authority to spend money on priority projects.
“Traffic is a problem that needs to be addressed in this region,” Black says. “But big government boondoggles are not the solution. The real solution is completing existing road projects and funneling commercial interstate traffic outside of commuter areas.
“We also need to recognize that this is not just a Davidson County problem. This is a regional problem, and we need all the counties in the area to come together and work on a regional master plan.”
No doubt, a $5.4 billion mass transit plan ($9.8 billion with operations and maintenance) complete with a downtown tunnel and insufficient funding mechanisms could have become a “boondoggle.”
Waiting on federal money, though, qualifies as a “big government” solution, especially when President Trump changes his mind from one day to the next, and Congress isn’t much better.
If she wins the gubernatorial election this year, Black might be able to force the state’s hand on I-840. But right now, it’s not registering with the Tennessee Department of Transportation.
TDOT killed the I-840 north loop more than 15 years ago because of public opposition and environmental concerns and has no plans to revitalize it, spokeswoman BJ Doughty says.
As for double-decker interstates, Doughty says TDOT hasn’t studied the matter and she couldn’t speak toward its feasibility. About the only thing certain, Doughty says, is that renewing I-840 would be “a lengthy and very expensive process – likely (costing) hundreds of millions.”
I-840 was going to cost around $1 billion in 2003 when then-Gov. Phil Bredesen’s administration put it on hold, according to reports. By now, it could cost twice that amount and take 20 years to complete, if the southern loop is any indication.
Hope for trains
Despite the transit plan’s demise, some state lawmakers in the doughnut counties say they believe a better proposal could find support across the region.
State Sen. Ferrell Haile, a Gallatin Republican who represents Sumner, Trousdale and part of Davidson County, says the plan could have won more support if its light rail had reached the county lines.
“I think you have to have a plan that gets it into the counties, to Clarksville, Gallatin, Murfreesboro, those come to mind real quick as areas that need that,” the Senate’s deputy speaker explains. “How you realign that and re-examine that is all up for discussion and debate.”
Haile also supports the completion of 109 and widening of other key routes into Sumner County, and he says he’s heard talk of I-840 resurfacing but is holding off on support.
Meanwhile, state Sen. Kerry Roberts is “exploring” the potential for legislation allowing smaller surrounding counties to participate in future mass transit referendums, as well as allowing multiple proposals on a ballot for voters to consider.
“That would eliminate the criticism that if you were in opposition to (former mayor) Megan Barry’s plan then you were in opposition to a high-density mass transit plan,” Roberts adds.
The IMPROVE Act, which passed in 2017, allowed the larger counties around Davidson to hold referendums to raise funds for mass transit projects. Other smaller counties were precluded from giving the public options to participate.
Roberts, a Springfield Republican, didn’t vote for the IMPROVE Act. He cites the impact of a fuel-tax increase on poor residents and the possibility the law was unconstitutional because of numerous amendments.
Nevertheless, he says a mass transit referendum “needs to be done regionally” and is looking at legislation enabling more people to vote and to look at other options. He also wants a comprehensive financial analysis on any plan and prohibitions on local government lobbyists. In other words, he says he doesn’t believe the Nashville mayor’s office should be harping on lawmakers for support.
Yet Roberts points out he could support a “common-sense” regional proposal for Nashville and surrounding counties involving light rail, buses and other options.
“I like light rail. I really do,” he acknowledges. “I am, however, confronted with the reality of spending a whole lot of money to subsidize the Music City Star. Is the idea of light rail inherently flawed in this market or is there something we could be doing differently?” The Music City Star runs from Mt. Juliet to downtown Nashville.
Roberts also worries about how people in suburban areas will reach trains, where they would park and whether they would want to make two or three switches to reach their destination. He even wonders whether people getting into their 60s and onward (in addition to those with bad knees) would want to stand on a platform waiting for the next train.
Wade Munday, a Democrat challenging Roberts in the November election, says the state Legislature should have a limited role to play in mass transit. He points out a coalition of county mayors in the region is studying infrastructure needs already, along with transportation organizations.
“I think Nashville is now going to have to propose some alternative to clean up the congestion that’s happening around the interstates and the city core that will then dovetail with what local county mayors and other regional transportation planning authorities are hoping to accomplish for the broader region in Middle Tennessee,” Munday says. He points out he would have voted for the IMPROVE Act to maintain and build more roads and bridges.
Looking for consensus
Not that state Rep. John Ray Clemmons wants to be compared to Diane Black, but he introduced legislation this year to create a bipartisan task force of lawmakers and industry leaders to study the future of transportation infrastructure and funding needs. The Nashville Democrat contends the IMPROVE Act and its six-cent gas tax increase by 2019 bought just enough time to adopt a better method of paying for transportation projects.
“Neither political party has a monopoly on good ideas, and buy-in from all sides is imperative for a lift this heavy,” Clemmons says.
However, his legislation got deep-sixed this session. Nobody wanted to discuss transportation, preferring instead to spend their time avoiding talk about Medicaid expansion, medical marijuana and gun control.
Not one to be dissuaded by a heavy deficit on the Democrats’ side of the aisle, Clemmons says he’s “turned up the knob” on researching creative funding for roads and bridges since the referendum failure, working with a Nashville research firm to gather data and ideas.
“Utilizing these, I hope to work with the new administration in 2019 on new, comprehensive infrastructure policies,” he adds.
If the next governor and Republican majority don’t agree, he’ll introduce his own proposal again, he says. Mass transit shouldn’t be a partisan or rural vs. urban issue, Clemmons contends.
“Despite what some might argue about the outcome of Metro’s referendum, there is overwhelming citywide and regional support for mass transit. I wholeheartedly support it and will continue to fight for it just as I have other projects to address my district’s needs and carry out its wishes,” he says.
In arguing the state’s future runs on pavement, Lamberth says, “We have roads that are in good shape. We do not have unmanageable traffic, even in the Middle Tennessee area right now. We need to stay ahead of the problem.”
Compared to LA and Atlanta, he has a point. But coming from Sumner County down I-65, he gets to take advantage of the best interstate in Greater Nashville with six lanes from the Rivergate area. Other corridors – I-24 from Murfreesboro to Nashville come to mind – are at the point of no return.
And it’s not the only problem area.
I-440 around south Nashville could be on the verge of a year-long shutdown for complete resurfacing. That plan will reroute that traffic elsewhere, making it damn near impossible to navigate Nashville.
Ultimately, the best solution is for people in the doughnut counties to avoid Nashville through economic development, work at home, satellite offices, etc., a situation popular with Chamber of Commerce people surrounding Davidson County.
And if we all could wake up one morning and catch a bus to a Nashville-bound train, flip open our laptops and work while riding downtown, it would be a glorious feeling. No more sitting in wreck traffic. No more two-hour trips to downtown Nashville.
It’s likely to take trains and automobiles – maybe even some planes from places such as Cookeville.
Unfortunately, such a scenario is likely to take 20 years and billions of dollars. By that time, they’ll probably be peeling my cold, dead fingers off the keyboard. Maybe, though, just maybe, my grandkids could ride.
Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Memphis Daily News, Nashville Ledger, Knoxville Ledger and Hamilton County Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.