As Mayor Karl Dean celebrates the completion of his signature project this weekend, doubts about his next one are surfacing.
Nashville Congressman Jim Cooper does not believe federal funding will be available for The Amp, Dean’s proposed bus rapid transit project that would run along the West End corridor. The project has already been a source of contention, with some residents, business owners and Metro Council members taking issue with the proposed route.
Members of an emerging group of opponents say Cooper shared his doubts with them during a recent meeting about the issue. Cooper spokeswoman Katie Hill confirmed his views to The City Paper.
“I think his view is that right now with sequestration going on, and until we strike some sort of grand bargain on the deficit, there’s just not a whole lot of extra money floating around out there for projects like this,” Hill said.
Jeff Boothe, a partner at Holland and Knight law firm and a consultant working with the city on The Amp, is more optimistic. He is chair of the New Starts Working Group, which lobbies for mass transit projects. The name of the group refers to the New Starts program, from which Nashville will be seeking funding, and Boothe said the program’s funding level as authorized by Congress last summer includes enough room for The Amp. If Congress were to approve the president’s requested increase in funding for the program, he said, there would be even more.
“I share Congressman Cooper’s frustration with the budget process, and frustration with this whole sequestration effort,” he said. “And frustration over the failure to adopt a full-year appropriations bill has led to implementation of sequestration. But we’re optimistic that Congress will do its business for this calendar year and that they will have a fiscal year 2014 appropriations bill done that will fund the New Starts program, and will fund it at the level at or close to the president’s request level.”
Boothe also said that Federal Transit Administration officials were very positive about the project at a recent meeting, and have not discouraged the city from applying for funding.
The Mayor’s office echoed that optimisim.
“Recognizing that money is tight everywhere, we’ve been working with the FTA for more than a year now to help ensure this project gets funding,” said Dean spokeswoman Bonna Johnson. “We’ve been hearing encouraging things from them, even as recently as last month when we met with them in D.C. We believe the Amp project is on track.”
The $174 million project would require $75 million in federal funds, which transit officials have said are “essential for the project to move forward.” At a project update last month, Metro officials could not offer a target date for the city’s application for federal funds. The current timeline for the project has the city applying sometime next year.
Doubts about federal support for the project come as a new group of business owners and residents along the corridor are preparing to go public with their opposition. Group organizers said they’ll be coming out formally, in the next week or so, under the name TN Responsible Transit.
Among them is John Carnes, who owns the West End property where Cumberland Transit and several other shops are located. Carnes, who also lives along the corridor, said the group is supportive of public transit in general, but opposes The Amp as currently planned. They’d like to see more discussion and more data about the route, and it’s potential effects on the busy thoroughfare.
“My general position is that the MTA and their public relations firms who put on this series of neighborhood meetings, that there was not full disclosure at this time,” he said. “It was just trying to sell it to us. And just trying to gloss over these issues and for us to go away. But the reality is that we’re not going away. We’re getting very much stronger. We’ve got a lot of support in the community. A lot of support from businesses along the corridor, and our neighborhood support is growing daily.”
Carnes said the group has even had discussions with some of the largest businesses along the corridor, but that many are hesitant to be seen publicly opposing the project.
“It’s difficult for everyone to come out in this situation, publicly,” he said. “Because many people have relationships with the city, in development or some type of business relationship. And they don’t want to get on the bad side of the mayor.”
After a brief pause, he added: “But I don’t really care if I’m on the bad side of the mayor.”
Dean and Metro transit officials have held up the corridor as the obvious starting point for bus rapid transit in the city, noting the high numbers of employees and residents along the route and it’s status as Nashville’s “Main Street.” At a project update last month, Dean defended the route against opponents who have said Charlotte Avenue might make more sense for the project, by noting the importance of the federal funding for the project.
“You also need to be in an area where there’s a density there, in terms of people living there that can support it,” he said at the time. “And in terms of the ridership, this is the corridor that the federal government will support. Federal funding to this is essential. As we say, it’s about  percent. So you have to do it along a corridor that the federal government’s going to be supportive of.”