Thursday, September 11, 2008

The mass transit push: Mayor Dean says it's time to get serious

Job one is startup funds, regular revenue; legislature and voters must approveBy CHRISTINA E. SANCHEZ • Staff Writer • September 11, 2008 Each city has set up fees or taxes to guarantee millions of dollars for mass transit. Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and other community leaders say it's time to stop talking about doing something like that in Middle Tennessee and get on with it. "In areas like Nashville or the suburban areas or the more rural areas, there is increased desire from the public to see mass transit," Dean said Wednesday, two days after he issued the challenge in a speech to the Rotary Club of Nashville. "The public expects us to get something done. We are closer than we ever have been before." Nashville and some of its suburbs have bus service. The 10-county Regional Transportation Authority operates a commuter train, express buses and vanpools. But recent service cuts, fare hikes and budget shortfalls add pressure to find the means — and the will — to guarantee a way to fund those services. Leadership Middle Tennessee, an organization that promotes regional planning, will talk about how to get sustainable funding and other regional transportation issues at a meeting today in downtown Nashville. Figuring out what the revenue source might be is just a small piece of the puzzle. The long and complicated process would require approval from the legislature, and probably voters, before anything would be implemented. Also, leaders would have to determine who or what agency would handle the funding. Tax groups are watching Advocates for responsible taxation say they will wait to hear about any proposals before they pass judgment on talk of creating another tax. Ben Cunningham, spokesman for Tennessee Tax Revolt, said he would want details. "As far as taxpayers are concerned, it is way too early to be talking about a tax," Cunningham said. "We need to see what is being proposed, and we need to tie down the cost very closely. You have to tell us why you need a dedicated funding source and what benefit we'll get from it." Don Bailey, who commutes an hour each way between Dickson and Nashville, has dreams of a commuter rail line that he could take to work. He spends about $600 a month on gas and would prefer to pay for a monthly transportation pass. He said he would entertain the idea of an extra tax or a fee, depending on the proposal. "Food and gas taxes would concern me; people are already struggling," said Bailey, who works at Vanderbilt. "If it was a tax on luxury items or a tax on vehicle tags, I could go for that." Dean has been meeting with county and city mayors from communities surrounding Nashville, as well as with regional planning groups, to discuss how to move forward. "The first step is to get authorization from the state to receive funding and collect funding, and then the next step would be identifying the source," he said. "There have been several recent success stories where this was approved in other cities." Officials in Allegheny County, Pa., home to Pittsburgh, passed in January a 10 percent tax on poured alcoholic drinks in restaurants and bars as well as a $2-a-day rental car fee. The combined taxes are expected to generate at least $30 million annually to operate mass transit, and anything above that amount will go toward capital transportation projects, said Kevin Evanto, communications director for the county. "We are also looking toward public-private partnerships to expand some of our systems, including for possibly expanding rapid transit from downtown Pittsburgh to the Pittsburgh airport," Evanto said. "We are trying to be creative." In Birmingham, Ala., beer bought in bars provides about $2 million toward transit funding. And in Charlotte, N.C., a half-cent sales tax is dedicated to transportation. Funding remains issue Funding transportation in Middle Tennessee has been a challenge. Two of the region's major mass transit agencies struggled through the budget process to fund public transportation for the 2009 fiscal year. Dollars had to be stretched to do the same with less and expenses had to be reduced. Nashville's Metro Transit Authority cut some routes, reduced service and stopped providing buses in July for the Regional Transportation Authority's relax and ride Gallatin-to-Nashville route. The RTA's Music City Star commuter rail budget has a $1.7 million shortfall, which could be filled pending a multi-way deal involving MTA and state and local governments. MTA is also slated to take over the financial operations of the Star on Nov. 1. "Dedicated funding is not a new topic in the region. It has just become more pronounced," said Michael Skipper, director of the Nashville Metropolitan Planning Organization. "Because there is not a dedicated funding source, we're going to go though a pretty cumbersome budget process every year." With the scheduled October opening of MTA's new indoor-transit station on Charlotte Avenue and a soon-to-be-restored express bus between Gallatin and Nashville, leaders want to make sure they can provide current services and grow transportation options in the region. Bus rapid transit and light rail are often mentioned as potential expansion projects, said Paul J. Ballard, chief executive officer for the MTA. Pending approvals, Ballard also will become head of the RTA when the MTA takeover begins. "We need to start to come together and see, how do we pay for these things," Ballard said. "We can go out and get 50 percent federal money to do that, but beyond that there has to be a long-term commitment

No comments: