Bus rapid transit scored an important initial victory at the courthouse Tuesday night, as the Metro Council voted to approve Mayor Karl Dean’s capital spending plan including $7.5 million in funding for the Amp project.
Metro Transit Authority CEO Paul Ballard, echoing previous statements from the mayor, told council members at a joint committee meeting earlier Tuesday that approving those funds would show the federal government that Nashville was serious about transit. Federal funding will be crucial for the proposed $175 million bus rapid transit system along the West End corridor to become a reality.
While it dominated the council’s discussion, the Amp funds represent a tiny piece of the mayor’s $300 million capital spending plan, which the council left unaltered. Metro Schools will receive $95 million to replace Goodlettsville Middle School, renovate and open Waverly Belmont Elementary School and build a new elementary school in Antioch, along with maintenance projects and school expansions across the district. (See additional items included in the spending plan listed below).
The plan also includes $27 million for the MTA, $7.5 million of which is designated for final design and engineering on the proposed bus rapid transit project. Those funds would only be spent if the Federal Transit Administration accepts the project into its Small Starts program.
An amendment proposed by Councilman Josh Stites would have preserved the Amp funds, but required a study to be done on Charlotte Avenue, among other corridors, as a potential alternate route for BRT. The idea received some support, but ultimately failed on a voice vote.
Councilman Jason Holleman, who has raised questions previously about whether Charlotte Avenue would be a better starting point for an upgraded transit system in the city said he shared Stites’ concerns about the degree to which alternate routes had been analyzed. He said he was conflicted, but ultimately he voted to support the administration and move forward with the plan as proposed.
“I think what we need to do in this conversation going forward is think about how we can do both,” he said, citing discussions with the Dean administration about bringing a BRT lite service to Charlotte Ave. in the near future.
Councilman Peter Westerholm spoke in support of the plan, echoing the strong pitch coming from the Dean administration in recent weeks.
“What has been proposed right now, in the Amp, the 7.1 mile stretch around West End through downtown over into East Nashville represents the best place to start,” he said. “This is an area that does have lots of housing, a lot of residents do reside in this area who use transit. You already have active transit users in this area, you have places of work, you have places of recreation, of entertainment — all the metrics that experts use to determine where transit projects should take place.”
The mayor has repeatedly claimed that West End is the only route in the city that will get support from the federal government, and transit officials have insisted that they considered other routes.
The council also took up the capital improvements budget, a wish list of sorts including projects the council can approve funding for during the next five years. If a capital project is not included in the capital improvements budget, it cannot be funded by the council.
An amendment proposed by Councilman Robert Duvall that would have removed $59 million — the estimated amount Metro will need to chip in for the project — designated for BRT from the capital improvements budget sparked debate but was ultimately defeated by a vote of 28-6. Duvall called the Amp as proposed “absolutely ludicrous,” although some of the issues he cited — such as significant increases in traffic congestion — were based on analysis that transit officials have repeatedly said do not reflect their current plan. He also expressed concern about the loss of on-street parking and the negative effect it could have on businesses along West End.
At-Large Councilman Charlie Tygard was among those supporting Duvall’s amendment. Earlier, Tygard had pressed Ballard about why the council should approve any funding for the Amp before the administration identified local funding sources for the project.
More than anything, though, the council’s first public discussion of the Amp revealed varying levels of familiarity with the basic details of the proposed project. As some council members discussed the pros and cons of the project, others seemed to be playing catch-up.
To open the discussion, Councilman Phil Claiborne asked for clarification about what A-M-P stood for, saying no one had been able to explain the project’s name to him. The name is not an acronym, however, but rather a music-themed moniker rolled out by brand consultants back in April. Councilmember Bruce Stanley blamed administration officials.
“I have been kept in the dark about this A-M-P, or this Amp,” he said.
During a committee discussion on the same amendment before the council’s meeting, Councilman Tony Tenpenny told members “I really don’t know anything about it,” and wondered aloud whether, instead of bus rapid transit, the project should use rail or perhaps go underground. While some have raised questions about the amount of attention given to alternative routes for the Amp, few if any have suggested rethinking the method of transit it will use, which was determined by an Alternatives Analysis in 2011.
The capital improvements budget was eventually approved, with the addition of one item allowing for future capital projects at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds.
Other items in the mayor’s $300 million spending plan include: