by Steven Hale
Mayor Karl Dean's proposed bus rapid transit line, The Amp, made it through an important checkpoint this week when the project showed up in President Barack Obama's fiscal year 2015 budget proposal.
The Obama administration is recommending $27 million for the project, and city officials say the remaining $48 million will be appropriated over the next couple of years. The focus, then, shifts largely to the Metro Council and the state legislature, both of which will also be asked to contribute to The Amp's $175 million price tag (presumably in that order, though we don't yet know that for sure.)
The Amp has already faced stiff resistance at the state level and that plot thickened somewhat yesterday when the House Transportation Sub-Committee approved legislation that would effectively kill The Amp as it's currently proposed.
Republican State Rep. Vince Dean, whose district sits southeast of Chattanooga on the Tennessee-Georgia border (in other words, nowhere near Nashville), proposed an amendment — which had been trumpeted by Stop Amp the day before — to his own bill that is comically specific. Here it is, per Dean's reading in yesterday's committee meeting:
Notwithstanding any other provision of law to the contrary, no metropolitan government or any transit authority created by any metropolitan government shall construct, maintain or operate any bus rapid transit system using a separate lane, or a separate right-of-way, dedicated solely to the use of such bus rapid transit system on any state highway or state highway right-of-way unless the project to construct, maintain or operate such BRT system on such state highway or state highway right-of-way is approved by the legislative body of the metropolitan government, by the commissioner of transportation, and by the General Assembly.
As Lee Beaman, the car dealership king who has been a significant financial backer of the Stop Amp organization and of Republican lawmakers, sat in the front row, Dean might as well have been winking as he read the amendment. No metropolitan government...shall construct maintain or operate any bus rapid transit system using a separate lane on a state highway. Well, it just so happens that the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County has proposed a bus rapid transit system that would use a dedicated lane...on a state highway.
The only way the target of the amendment could have been more clear is if it had prohibited BRT lines named after musical equipment.
The amendment passed on a voice vote, and Dean then delayed a vote on the bill for one week, to give people time to "digest it." Well, here are some things to chew on, anyway.
Stop Amp, who has been the most visible organized opposition to the project but certainly doesn't represent all dissenters, is effectively asking the state to legislate their preferred design for transit in Nashville. Malcom Getz, a Vanderbilt professor and one of the group's most effective spokespeople, has long argued that putting BRT Lite — a la Gallatin Pike and Murfreesboro Road — on West End instead of a true BRT system like The Amp, which would use dedicated lanes. Recently, Stop Amp has begun advocating the same, arguing that a curbside service, like BRT Lite, wouldn't affect traffic as negatively, and would be safer for riders. By banning use of dedicated lanes (without the express written consent of the General Assembly), Dean's amendment would essentially make this the only BRT-like option.
Although it was surely irksome to Amp supporters, few could object to opponents' efforts to block state funding for The Amp. Asking legislators not to fund a project you oppose seems reasonable enough. Metro will be asking them for money, and it's obviously their prerogative to say no. But leaning on state legislators to get your design preference on a local project put into state law is definitely an escalation. (Imagine, for instance, a piece of legislation banning any metropolitan government from constructing a convention space with an undulating roof.)
Dean's amendment also stirred the familiar debate about local autonomy. On my timeline at least, the backlash — from Amp supporters and opponents alike — to this tweet from the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce's chief policy office, Marc Hill, warning about "extraordinary State micromanagement in local issues" came fast and furious. After all, as some pointed out, the chamber doesn't seem to mind such micromanagement when it comes to, say, state-level authorization of charter schools.
For Beaman, though, this is a go-to play call. He was among the group of conservatives who went running to the state in 2011, in an effort to defeat Metro's then-pending nondiscrimination ordinance. Metro passed the bill, as you'll recall, and the state nullified it soon after.
How far this effort actually goes after this digestion period is anyone's guess at this point. But given that the fight over The Amp is now officially a fight over an item in the president's budget, don't be surprised if state Republicans like the way it tastes.