Sally Robertson, a Mt. Juliet citizen and frequent rider of the Music City Star, brought up the issue.
“I ride the train. The train is a great amenity,” said Robertson. “I just want some answers, like they’re saying that Mt. Juliet is not paying their fair share of the subsidy. We were paying. I don’t know why we quit, except Kenny [Martin] says there’s like other things that the city has to pay and so they decided not to. Is it optional or is it required, because [Regional Transportation Authority] is saying it’s required?”
City Manager Kenny Martin was the first to respond to Robertson’s question.
“If anybody’s read in the media that the city of Mt. Juliet’s not paying its fair share for anything, that would be totally false,” said Martin. “There’s a voluntary contribution that the city could make if it chose to, but we put those monies toward the citizens of Mt. Juliet, Tennessee first, meaning that if there’s road projects and things of that nature, before we give away a complimentary $30,000 a year for any other service, we would provide that for things we need here.”
Mt. Juliet vice mayor and District 2 Commissioner James Maness then addressed Robertson’s inquiry about whether the funds were required or voluntary.
“The requirements for what the city gives to RTA is spelled out in state law,” said Maness. “We meet those obligations per state law. What they’re calling required, that’s just an opinion. Just because they put required on the document doesn’t make it a law. I don’t know if they’re not aware of the law, if they’re ignoring it, but the conversation has been very misleading. I want to apologize to all the riders of the Star. Not that I feel that we’ve done anything wrong to them but just for the misleading conversation that’s been going on for this.”
District 1 Commissioner Ray Justice was the last to comment on the question and spoke of the council’s unity on the subject.
“If you will notice, the answers that you get from all of us at this table are consistently the same,” said Justice. “We are on the same page.”
The Regional Transit Authority staff said last Wednesday at its board meeting it plans to meet with Mt. Juliet officials to discuss the city’s annual operating contribution shortfall. According to the group, Mt. Juliet has not paid its budgeted $30,000 Music City Star operating contribution since 2014.
“We really don’t want to do anything punitive to Mt. Juliet, but it’s become an issue, because this is an ongoing problem,” said Sumner County executive Anthony Holt. “If you look at it, Mt. Juliet has the largest ridership, as my understanding, in that entire corridor, but yet, if you look back on Page 11, they’re paying the least.”
Mt. Juliet annually budgets about $30,000 for Music City Star operation, which is about $25,000 less than Lebanon and $20,000 less than Wilson County.
“We’re not asking them to pay more. We’re asking them to really contribute their fair share,” Holt said.
Wilson County Mayor Randall Hutto, RTA vice chairman, elaborated on the situation with Mt. Juliet.
“Mt. Juliet, for a while, did pay their fair share. Then, there was a situation that came up about the property around the station and the use of that. In conversations that happened between them and RTA, there was a difference of opinions of that. We’ve tried to get to the bottom of that,” said Hutto, who said the county also neglected its financial duties at one point.
“We will work to try and solve that. We enjoy the train in Wilson County, and we want everybody to pay their fair share and want to do everything we can to keep it alive and going.”
“This has the potential to undermine what we’re doing. This entire RTA has been a collaborative effort. We’ve all participated, and I think we’ve done so in good faith, and we’ve done so in an equitable way where everybody’s treated fairly,” Holt said.
Possible options discussed to remedy the issue included reducing service to the Mt. Juliet station, charging for parking, applying a ticket surcharge for riders who use the station or paying back the Federal Transit Administration the federal portion of the station value and stopping service.
The RTA ended bus service in Brentwood after the city did not fulfill its financial obligations. However, RTA CEO Steve Bland said the situation in Mt. Juliet differs.
“The primary difference is there’s an investment of federal funds in the fixed asset in the city of Mt. Juliet,” Bland said.