What's next for transit?

In the wake of Nashville’s failed transit referendum, state Sen. Kerry Roberts is “exploring” legislation enabling surrounding counties to participate in future mass transit referendums and to allow multiple proposals for voters to consider.

“I do feel strongly it needs to be done regionally,” says Roberts, a Springfield Republican.

He contends the Nashville transit plan, which fell by a 64-36 margin in a May 1 referendum, would have created transit “corridors to nowhere” while costing some $9.8 billion, including long-term operation and maintenance.

But even though he felt it was a bad plan, Roberts says he could support a “common-sense” regional proposal for Nashville and surrounding counties involving light rail, buses and other modes of transportation. Roberts also represents Cheatham, Dickson, Hickman and Humphreys counties in the 25th Senate District.

And with an eye to regional transit, he is studying legislation – if re-elected this fall – hitting four areas:

  • Allowing smaller counties, such as Robertson, not included in the 2017 IMPROVE Act to hold referendums enabling them to raise revenue for mass transit. Such a move could allow Davidson’s “halo” counties to participate in a regional mass transit referendum.
  • Placing multiple options on a regional referendum so voters who don’t like one plan can choose an alternative.
  • Requiring an in-depth financial impact report on regional mass transit plans.
  • Restricting local governments from hiring lobbyists to work on a mass transit plan.

“You’ve got to have a bona fide financial analysis of the plans because the consequence of being wrong is staggering,” Roberts says, noting mass transit projects across the nation are “notorious” for costing more than expected.

Davidson County’s transit plan was to cost about $5.8 billion, plus another $4 billion for operations and maintenance. It would have raised the county sales tax, hotel tax and several other revenue streams.

Democrat Wade Munday, who is running for the 25th District seat, points out Roberts voted against the 2017 IMPROVE Act, which so far has brought about $30 million for bridge projects into rural parts of the district. Munday says he would have voted for the IMPROVE Act, including a three-year gas tax increase to fund road and bridge improvements, offset by reductions in the grocery, Hall income and business taxes.

“That basic infrastructure upkeep is necessary in order to keep our traffic flowing in the rural areas. So while mass transit is appealing, I think I probably come across a little more like a small government state Senate candidate in this scenario because I think we’ve got a limited role to play,” says Munday, executive director of Tennessee Justice for Our Neighbors, which helps victims of human trafficking, war and domestic violence.

Still, the Democratic challenger says he would oppose proposing referendums for Davidson and the surrounding counties, instead letting local governments decide what works well for them and encouraging them to follow Nashville’s lead.

A coalition of county mayors in the region is studying infrastructure needs, 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.

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