WeGo says service cuts of 'unprecedented proportions' likely if tax referendum passes

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Posted at 6:49 PM, Sep 21, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-21 21:42:22-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — As citizens wait to find out if the Davidson County Election Commission will hold a special election for a tax referendum, more departments in Nashville are voicing their concerns.

The referendum would repeal the 34% property tax hike approved by Metro council earlier this year. Mayor John Cooper announced if it makes it on the ballot and approved by voters, Nashville would be in a $322 million shortfall. He warned Metro departments including police and fire would be forced to make significant changes and cuts.

However, supporters of the referendum say the tax hike was too high, especially during a pandemic. Government watchdog group Beacon Center of Tennessee called the tax increase a band-aid to cover financial mismanagement issues.

Among the departments that have recently expressed concerns about the referendum is WeGo Public Transit. While the extent of a funding deficit is currently unknown, a spokesperson said any future cuts will be “extremely painful and result in a true loss to the community.”

WeGo Public Transit CEO Stephen Bland described the possible cuts to be of “unprecedented proportions.”

If the referendum passes and WeGo had to make cuts, there would be a list of actions to include:

  1. Elimination of remaining MTA commuter-oriented routes and cross towns
  2. Restrict Access services to the minimum federal mandate, which is to provide part transit service only within 3/4 mile of existing fixed routes (WeGo currently serves the entire county, regardless fo where the Access-eligible customers live)
  3. Reduction in service on WeGo Star and Regional Commuter Bus Service
  4. Reduction in operating hours, looking at eliminating all Sunday service, and ending serving earlier at night
  5. Elimination of StrlDe program of free transit for MNPS students
  6. Elimination of free transit passes for the Metro Nashville Homeless Impact Divison
  7. Elimination of support to the Oasis Center Transit Youth Action Team
  8. Reduction in the number of hours that Customer Service staff (call center and WeGo Central Sales Office) are open
  9. Reduction of resources applied to cleaning services
  10. General fare increases on all services

“We are already even by today’s standard offer much less service than cities our size or larger. So it’s unfathomable. It truly would become a bare-bones minimal transit service,” Bland told NewsChannel 5.

Nashville falls in the bottom six of cities with a similar size in terms of transportation investments made.

WeGo already had to reduce services and make cuts before the pandemic due to budget cuts and after the transit referendum failed in 2018. Voters rejected a plan that would have built large transit infrastructure including bus rapid transit, light rail and a tunnel through downtown.

Metro also had to cut funding to the department by $21 million because of the economic impact of the pandemic, according to Bland. It currently is relying on $51 million provided through the CARES Act, but transit officials worry and almost guarantee the money will not last for all of next year.

“I have faith in the public after we’ve been through a whole round of different scenarios that in the end, in a democracy, we tend to make the right decisions once we know the impacts of what the different alternatives are,” Bland said.

About two-thirds of bus riders in Nashville say they have no other mobility option. People like Kevin Walker said they rely on the bus even though getting a fare on a regular basis can be a challenge. While he may not worried about the future, he knows any changes can be a detriment.

Dartisha Mosley is a Fisk University student who takes the bus to her classes three times a week. She says possible increased are and change in routes could affect many riders like her.

“You really have to step in the shoes of others and understand that different monetary funds going to things that will enhance and help people’s lives is truly important,” she said.

If commissioners approve putting the referendum on the ballot, the election could take place in the first week of December.