The Metro Council Tuesday night approved the capital improvements budget and allowed $51.5 million meant for The Amp to be put back into the document that serves as a five-year project wish list.
But an unforced error by Mayor Karl Dean's administration meant the project was first subjected to a round of speechifying by council members.
The capital improvements budget is a planning document that does not appropriate funds or authorize the spending of any money. But to be eligible for future funding, projects must be included in it. So it came as a surprise when the packet of proposed amendments to the CIB distributed to council members and the press yesterday included an amendment to insert $51.5 million for for final design, construction and buses for the "East-West Connector" — that is, The Amp, Dean's proposed 7.1 mile bus rapid transit route along West End and into East Nashville. Instead of being passed along with the whole CIB in one vote, as was supposed to happen, their would now have to be a stand-alone vote on the contentious proposal.
MTA's interim CEO, Ed Oliphant, fell on the sword in a statement distributed by the mayor's office before Tuesday's council meeting.
"In the process off compiling the MTA project list for the Capital Improvements Budget this year, items for the Amp were inadvertently left out," Oliphant said. "It was an administrative oversight at a time when management changes were taking place. MTA takes full responsibility for the error."
Dean spokeswoman Bonna Johnson also issued a statement, explaining that the CIB did not authorize any spending related to The Amp and reiterating how the administration plans to move forward.
"The Administration has no intention of filing a capital spending plan with funding for The Amp until the Citizens Advisory Committee has finished its work and the final design process for the project is complete," Johnson said. "Any funding plan for The Amp would have to be submitted to the Metro Council for its full consideration through the course of its normal public process."
Before the council even took up the amendment to add the Amp-related items back into the CIB, it was clear why the goof would be a headache for the administration officials seated in the chamber. Councilman Duane Dominy moved to suspend the rules and hold a spontaneous public hearing on the CIB, on the grounds that last week's public hearing wasn't able to address this new addition to the document. (The Amp actually was brought up by speakers during last week's hearing, but Dominy was correct in saying that the line-items related to the project had not officially been put in the CIB at that time.) A slew of council members objected to Dominy's motion.
The council approved an amendment to the amendment, from At-Large Councilman Tim Garrett, which stripped the Amp-related items of the words "East-West Connector" meaning the council could appropriate those funds to a future bus rapid transit project anywhere in the county.
“This just gives the committee that the mayor appointed flexibility," Garrett said. "It allows the funds to be spent anywhere in the county depending on where this council decides. The administration is OK with this, MTA is OK with this, our sponsor is all right with it as well, and I think it gives everyone here a little more freedom to vote for this bill and put it into capital improvements.”
After that, several members took their turns voicing objections to the project, the process, or both.
Councilman Bruce Stanley warned the council that "bus rapid transit could be just a fad" and said the council should oppose the project until their was a broader regional transit plan.
“This bus rapid transit, this Amp, along Broadway and West End is less than 10 miles long," he said. "It’s a joke, that’s what it is, it’s a joke. It’s only being proposed by people who have deepest pockets. I would instill that we press for a comprehensive mass transit plan or program for Metro Nashville that would follow all of the major pikes or corridors that connect the surrounding counties with Davidson County.”
The Nashville Area MPO has released a long-term plan, albeit one that some have deemed less than compelling.
At-Large Councilman Charlie Tygard returned to the point he has made repeatedly in recent months, insisting that The Amp was premature if there wasn't a conversation first about dedicated funding for mass transit.
“Until we start having that conversation about how both the citizens of Nashville and the surrounding counties, how serious they are about funding this, we shouldn’t be spending taxpayer money on individual projects, even if it’s classified as a pilot project," he said. "We shouldn’t chase federal money until we have a clear view of the plan.”
Dominy rose again to critcize how things looked.
“This body received notification of this proposal less than 6 hours ago," he said. "After 12 o’clock today. Whether you’re for mass transit or against mass transit, or for The Amp or against The Amp, we were notified of this proposal after 12 noon today. Less than five days before the required passage of the CIB. It adds $51.5 million to the CIB after the public hearing took place on this issue, on a highly contested concern and proposal for this city. And we’re supposed to accept that on an issue that it supposed to be of the utmost importance and priority for this city, a simple mistake left it out of the CIB. Whether you’re for this or against this, this looks bad. It looks like something being done that’s inappropriate, I’m not suggesting it is, I’m just telling you it looks bad.”
Later, Councilman Robert Duvall accused the administration of trying to sneak Amp funding "through the backdoor." But he was clearly confused, apparently conflating the CIB — which doesn't appropriate funds or authorize spending — with the operating budget or a capital spending plan.
The council eventually voted 25 to 8 to add the Amp-related items back into the CIB and passed the CIB as a whole by a vote of 29 to 4.