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Commuter rail remains on track
Mar 30, 2004 12:00 am
Tennessee's federal legislators Monday reaffirmed their commitment to the Nashville/Lebanon commuter rail project, saying they intend to formally request the project's final $8 million from Congress in a matter of days.
The renewed public push to fund at the federal level a project that would be the first of five commuter rail lines to Nashville's contiguous counties came after an ongoing state review of the project driven by Gov. Phil Bredesen was made known.
However, federal officials, state legislators and even local city leaders in Wilson County said they had received no indication from the Tennessee Department of Transportation or Bredesen's office the project – already in receipt of over $14 million in federal funding – was in jeopardy at the state level.
"Nobody has indicated to me they are about to pull the rug out from under it," State Rep. Stratton Bone said late Monday.
Officials in the offices of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and Sen. Lamar Alexander as well as Congressmen Jim Cooper and Bart Gordon all said they anticipate winning the final pot of federal funding for the commuter rail project, though the money could come in phases over two to three years.
The statements from the lawmakers' offices came a day after an ongoing state study and "review" of the project became public, as well as comments from Metro Nashville councilmen saying the project was not in Nashville's best interest.
A Frist spokesperson said Monday the Senator's office was within days of submitting a funding request to the appropriate transportation subcommittee.
"There were a couple of hurdles that needed to be addressed at the state level, and those appear to have been addressed," Frist spokesman Nick Smith said Monday. "We are in the process of putting in the request to the transportation appropriations subcommittee.
"We are letting them know that we support this project and we are putting in the request for the $8 million. We hope we can secure the funding through the appropriations process."
Statements from Bredesen's office and TDOT make it clear the impetus behind the review of the six-year-old commuter rail project is the governor, though the possible ramifications of the review were unclear.
Bredesen and TDOT spokespersons both indicated concerns over the state's 10 percent share of the over $30 million funding package were a factor.
"Obviously, funding is an interest over here because we have so many pressing issues, from the reform of TennCare to making sure our children get the best education," Bredesen spokesperson Lydia Lenker told The Lebanon Democrat.
Lenker added the study is being performed by an indepenedten consultatnt at the direction of TDOT Commssioner Gerald Nicely. Nicely commissioned the study in response to Bredesen's request to review the project.
TDOT Spokesperson Kim Keelor downplayed the review but also added funding of the project was a concern calling it a "major investment."
Keelor compared the review to an earlier TDOT review of 15 projects in East Tennessee last year.
"I don't want people to read too much into this study," Keelor said. "We have reviewed many things under this new administration, including the way TDOT does business. We need to find out if this line of transportation is the best investment of this money."
There are critics of the commuter rail project close to the department, including the powerful Tennessee Road Builders Association.
Kent Starwalt, executive director of the TRBA, said his organization has not taken a formal public position on commuter rail and is not actively lobbying against it.
Yet, Starwalt did criticize the stated purpose of the project, to ease traffic congestion, arguing current ridership estimates for the proposed line are not enough to justify the expense.
"We don't believe that highway users ought to be paying for transit projects, and that project has been sold on reducing congestion and cleaning the air," Starwalt said. "The projected ridership on that thing will do neither one. Now, it does provide a commuting option, but to sell it on that basis is just not factual. That's all we've ever said."
Privately, Tennessee congressional staffers say there have been concerns at both the state level and in Nashville Metropolitan government about the lack of a management structure and operational funding for the rail line, which is set to begin operation in August 2005.
Annual operating costs for the single rail line may exceed $1 million with no funding deal in place between Nashville and Wilson County governments.
However, congressional staff said apparent concerns at the state level that federal funding for the project would be abandoned by Congress during the currently tight budget environment was unfounded.
"Every year since 1998 we've gotten some funding for this," said Keith Talley, spokesperson for Gordon's 6th District. "The likelihood of the federal government setting this aside with so much funding already in place is very small."
Talley pointed out the project has already had almost $14 million of a total $25 million federal appropriation released to the project managers.
Both Talley and Congressman Jim Cooper acknowledged the latest $8 million installment may come in smaller pieces. It is unclear what that move would do to the opening date of August 2005 with construction on the line already underway in Wilson County.
Project Manager Allison Shumate was unavailable for comment Monday according to staff at the Regional Transportation Authority, the quasi-governmental body that administers the project as well as the Nashville area park and ride programs.
Cooper noted that project advocates were fortunate the rail line was "grand fathered" under federal funding formulas that now dictate a 50/50 split between the federal government and local governments. The project now is under the old guidelines that dictate a split of 80 percent federal, 10 percent state and 10 percent local funding.
"There was a federal report that nearly killed this project last fall because of a lack of local commitment," Cooper noted. "There is a danger every day. …This is a very complex and important project."
From a Wilson County perspective, Lebanon Mayor Don Fox seemed surprised the project was up for review at TDOT, noting a meeting with the department in recent months seemed to indicate the project was moving forward.
"We had one meeting where they (TDOT) wanted us to reaffirm our commitment a few months ago, and we certainly did that," Fox said. "In fact, I was asked point blank by Commissioner (Gerald) Nicely if I was comfortable with the commuter rail system as it was being designed. I said, 'Absolutely.'
"We have in our resolution – the same as in Mt. Juliet's resolution and Wilson County's resolution – that in five years it has to be two-way. It also has to be self-funded by regional or state sources. That's in our agreement. …If it was stalled right now, it would be a travesty to the entire Middle Tennessee region that has worked so hard for it."
Keelor said the state review of what would be Tennessee's first true commuter rail line is due at the end of May. She called the statements from the state's congressional delegation "encouraging."
"That's very encouraging for everyone's sake," Keelor said. "The state could not fund the project by itself."