NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Can working with neighboring counties be the way forward for transit in Nashville?
A recently published new study by Moving Forward, a policy group founded by the Chamber of Commerce, suggests forming regional districts could be one option to help solve transit woes in Davidson County. And the idea is getting the attention of the Mayor's Office.
Metro's government has been looking at new options after 2018's multi-billion dollar transit referendum failed to pass. That plan would have funded five light rail lines, overhauled the bus system and built downtown tunnels so public transportation could bypass traffic. When voters overwhelmingly rejected that plan, many cited frustration that it did not address the traffic coming in from neighboring counties.
That was by design. The city used the IMPROVE Act as a template for the 2018 plan, which requires individual jurisdictions to come up with and pay for a plan by themselves. That requirement is part of why the proposed rail and bus lines didn't reach into nearby counties.
But Alexia Poe with Moving Forward says a 2009 law would allow the Regional Transit Authority, under WeGo Public Transit, to form regional districts rather than plan transit county-by-county.
"It would allow folks to work together, both from a structural standpoint and from a financial standpoint, to work as a region when it comes to mobility and transportation," Poe said.
The Moving Forward study looked at seven peer cities and found success both with a regional approach and a county-by-county approach. But staff say the successful cities each had one major factor in common - dedicated funding for transit projects.
"We are really well positioned, no matter how we approach it, Poe said, "the key takeaway is that dedicated funding is crucial."
Right now, funding for transit comes from the city's general fund. It competes with other needs like government employees, schools, fire and police. City officials won't discuss details of any future plan, or dedicated funding, until leaders hear from residents and stakeholders at a series of listening sessions over the next several weeks. But they say a regional option has peaked their interest.
"Regional connectivity is critically important," Senior Adviser on Transportation and Infrastructure Faye DiMassimo said. "[The regional coordination study] is worthy of a lot more due diligence to investigate what the requirements are and what would be necessary."'
Census Bureau data show nearly 20 percent of Davidson Co workers commute into Nashville from surrounding areas.
And Moving Forward says a regional plan is just another option as residents meet with city leaders to build a new transportation plan for Nashville.
WeGo Public Transit leaders say there are some difficulties with the idea of a regional plan, such as getting multiple entities to agree. They say the 2009 law that allows for RTA districts is more restrictive with funding sources, limiting them to streams that counties already have at their disposal and are being used for other needs.
"The Regional Transportation Authority of Middle Tennessee has been aware of its ability under state law to request that its member counties create a dedicated stream of funding for mass transit, and considered it as an option during the nMotion Strategic Transit Planning process," said CEO Steve Bland. "Given that the provisions for dedicated transit referenda under the IMPROVE Act were more expansive, this is the route that was pursued in Davidson County in 2018."
As efforts like the Nashville Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s Middle Tennessee Connected Long Range Transportation Plan and Mayor Cooper’s Transportation Plan for Nashville unfold over the coming year, the RTA will revisit this issue with its member counties and cities as projects and services that could gain this type of support are identified.”