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Local rail funding hike unlikely
Jul 18, 2005 12:00 am
July 15, 2005
Top officials from Lebanon, Mt. Juliet and Wilson County said Thursday their respective governments are not likely to provide additional funding to cover unforeseen cost increases associated with the Music City Star commuter rail line.
Earlier this week, Mt. Juliet City Manager Robert Shearer – a member of the rail project's Eastern Corridor Oversight Committee – indicated unforeseen spikes in the cost of liability insurance and fuel would leave Lebanon, Mt. Juliet and Wilson County governments responsible for roughly $350,000 in first-year rail operation costs.
All three governments, however, have approved resolutions earmarking a total of only $100,000 from each of the respective budgets to go toward operational costs during the first five years of passenger service.
Lebanon Mayor Don Fox said Thursday the Regional Transportation Authority inquired as to whether the local governments would lift the $100,000 cap – a scenario he and Mt. Juliet Mayor Linda Elam said is unlikely to come to fruition.
"The three governments will not approve amending the resolution that we've already built," Fox said. "I feel very sure of that … The request from RTA was that we remove the cap from our resolution, and we will not do that."
"It is highly unlikely that the three Wilson County-based governments would agree to increase that cap," Elam said. "We're all on very fiscally conservative budgets, and I don't think that we're going to be overly impressed by a request to spend more than we had allocated over five years in the first two years. I don't see a huge chance of success there."
The same holds true for county government, according to Wilson County Mayor Robert Dedman, who said he agreed with his fellow mayors "100 percent."
"We just can't afford something like that. It's too much," Dedman said.
Shearer said rail officials must now revisit the first-year budget for the commuter rail line to free up additional monies that may be available. He noted altering the fare structure might prove to be a source of additional revenue.
"We're wrestling with how we work through these numbers," Shearer said. "I'm actually going to be asking the ECOC to review the budget just to make sure that we are adequately providing for everything but not over (providing)."
Fox said Shearer's plan, which he referred to as "value economizing," is the first of several options rail officials should consider when revisiting the first-year operating budget.
In addition to the increase in fuel and insurance costs, the rail project did not receive $6.2 million in federal funds needed to upgrade tracks from Highway 109 to Lebanon. Should rail officials ultimately seek to borrow those funds, Shearer said interest would cost approximately $300,000 annually.
Fox said one cost-saving option may be to hold off on plans for upgrades, which would mean the commuter trains would slow from 60 mph to 40 mph between Hwy. 109 and Lebanon.
"It would just be a slower ride from Hwy. 109 to the Lebanon station," Fox said. "You don't remove a cap … to increase the speed somewhat over that period of time. You may be doing 60 mph from Riverfront Station to (Hwy.) 109 and then do 40 mph on into Lebanon. You don't want to create a tax black hole."
Dedman, however, was less enthusiastic with plans to put the planned upgrades on hold, noting a number of local industries are dependent on the county's railways.
But Elam said she liked Fox's idea, describing it as "thinking outside the box."
Elam noted local industries have used the existing rail line for years and might be willing to help pay for upgrades if they are necessary for business.
"I don't like the idea of (leaving the existing track from Hwy. 109 to Lebanon), but it might be the most cost-effective alternative available to us," she said. "I do understand that industries would prefer that we use the higher-grade track. I guess if it's important enough to them, they can kick in some money and make that happen."
As officials begin reviewing the inaugural Music City Star budget, Fox noted he remains "optimistic" about the project. Elam said the Mt. Juliet City Commission would "always" be willing to listen to any RTA proposal regarding funding the commuter rail line.
Meanwhile, the Tennessee Department of Transportation is keeping a close eye on the latest budget estimates issued by the RTA.
TDOT Public Information Officer Kim Keelor said the latest developments have not affected the state's commitment to or perception of the rail project.
"We're just continuing to closely monitor the developments with the commuter rail situation," Keelor said.
Under the current funding structure, TDOT would provide roughly $430,000 of the estimated $3 million first-year operational costs.
Staff Writer Brian Harville can be reached at 444-3952 ext. 16 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.