In late August, state Speaker of the House Beth Harwell was sitting in traffic on West End when she told WPLN's Daniel Potter by phone that "it would be difficult" to get state legislators to pony up $35 million for The Amp.
Since traffic congestion on Nashville's central corridor is the chief argument for Mayor Karl Dean's massive bus rapid transit project, its negligible effect on one of the state's most powerful legislators — and a Nashvillian to boot — was a big flashing warning sign. In any case, the Dean administration seemed caught off guard last week when Harwell told The Tennessean, unequivocally, that the state should not chip in for The Amp.
"I haven't spoken to Speaker Harwell about what The Tennessean is reporting, but that type of conclusion is clearly premature," Dean said in an emailed statement. "A decision on The Amp should only be made when you have all the facts and information."
That's not the message the administration has been sending to project skeptics, many of whom feel the bus has already left the station — albeit an attractive, fixed station with real-time arrival information (and self-service fare-collection kiosk). Indeed, after insisting that a decision about The Amp should only be made with "all the facts and information" at hand, Dean's statement actually went on to explain why one should support The Amp. In other words, while opposition is premature, there are clearly enough facts to inform your support.
Whether the Dean administration is failing to reel in big fish at the state level, or this particular pond has dried up, isn't clear. But while Harwell is not without substantive reasons for opposition — among them her constituents and the project's price tag — the Nashville Republican may also have more pragmatic motives. After all, her House caucus is filled with mad-dog conservatives who might well beat down her door if she supported a blue-city transit project.
Whatever the case, state support for The Amp is not materializing. Nashville Democratic Sen. Doug Henry told the Scene last week that he would withhold judgment until state transportation officials weighed in. Nashville Republican Sen. Steve Dickerson, meanwhile, said he has not taken a firm position but noted opposition from many constituents.
Dickerson also said he has "some reservations about whether this project, at this time, in this location, is the right thing." What's more, he added that he hadn't been contacted by the mayor or the city about The Amp. (A quick detour: If this is true, how is is it possible that a Nashville state senator, whose constituency apparently has qualms about the project, has not received a phone call from the mayor's office?)
But there are more speed humps still. Asked where Gov. Bill Haslam stands on the state contributing $35 million to The Amp, Haslam spokesman Dave Smith noted that as budget hearings get underway this week, "there are a number of projects under review." At the same time, though, he referred a reporter to a recent story in which state Department of Transportation Commissioner John Schroer discussed the years-long backlog of road projects and increasingly limited transportation dollars coming out of Washington, D.C. Smith also noted the recent release of the state's October revenues, which fell below projections.
The mayor's office says it has not yet made a funding request with the state. Facts and information, you know.
"A year ago, we updated TDOT on our bus rapid transit project, and TDOT responded with support but no commitment on the amount of funding. Our project team continues to talk often with TDOT and its engineering department," Dean spokeswoman Bonna Johnson tells the Scene. "We expect to make a funding request once we are further along the design phase so that TDOT will have more information about the project and how it will work along what is a state route."
If state funding is withheld, The Amp's backers do not see it as a fatal blow. The mayor has said the project will not go forward without the $75 million Metro seeks from the federal government. He's made no such statement about the state funds.
But how the project will move forward without state help is a difficult question. The $35 million funding hole could seemingly be filled by cutting the route or asking the Metro Council for more money — or both. (For the purposes of this discussion, we'll assume the council will approve Metro's $51.5 million portion of the funding, because for the purposes of any discussion, we assume the council intends to approve things.)
Yet even if these doubts don't hurt the project's chances of securing federal funding, they can't help. An answer from the feds won't come until next year. Back in May, Nashville Congressman Jim Cooper said he doubted there would be federal funding available for the project. Now Cooper tells the Scene that he supports The Amp.
But the mayor's office had better hope that discussion over Thanksgiving dinner doesn't sway him. One of Cooper's brothers is sporting a red Stop Amp sign in his yard.
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