Low Ridership Doesn’t Sway GOP Candidates from Giving Music City Star High Marks

Despite having never met ridership expectations during its four-year run of weekday operations, the Music City Star enjoys generally supportive attitudes from candidates whose districts are served by the government-run commuter train.

Tuesday’s statehouse and Congressional ballot box winners could determine whether rail projects in Middle Tennessee are expanded, and what funding priority they’re given versus roads, bus services and air travel.

The six-stop line between the Nashville riverfront and Lebanon is now averaging around 860 rider-trips a day, or 430 round trips — much less than projections of 1,500 passenger trips that backers suggested in 2006.

But even as the commuter rail vision in Middle Tennessee has foundered over the past four years — encountering funding shortfalls, high-profile snafus, leadership shakeups and lukewarm popularity among potential riders — many of the region’s most vocal fiscally conservative GOP voices say funding for the Music City Star is money well spent.

Middle Tennessee needs to create a mass transit “spoke” with connecting transportation lines “so that you can literally go from the Murfreesboro to the eastern part over to Wilson County and then the northern part in Sumner County,” said state Sen. Diane Black, R-Gallatin. “That will be important, and I think that you will see the ridership picks up because you give them more accessibility.”

Black is running for Tennessee’s 6th Congressional District seat against Democratic candidate Brett Carter.

The commuter rail’s regular ridership base is now 30 percent government employees whose work-commute costs are paid by taxpayers — meaning the number of ticket-paying Music City Star riders is actually considerably less than it was two years ago. The train is bringing in fewer customer-generated dollars than before the Regional Transportation Authority handed management of the project over to the Davidson Transit Organization, a private nonprofit company.

The low number of paying train riders doesn’t bother Black right now, she said, nor do the costs of running the train, which is about $4 million each year, almost all of which is paid for with federal, state and local government tax dollars. The state portion is made up of fuel-tax revenues and motor vehicle registration fees, along with money set aside as part of federal air quality mandates, according to the Tennessee Department of Transportation.

The train’s revenues topped off at $684,147 in the budget year that ended in June 2008. Last year, revenues dropped to $476,249, a reflection of “the economy and lower fuel prices for customers,” according to an RTA representative.

Mayors from across Middle Tennessee hope to expand the area’s regional mass transit offerings with a series of additional commuter lines, although those plans are still in the works and would require additional state and federal funding.

Among them is state House Republican candidate and Mt. Juliet mayor, Linda Elam.

Lackluster ridership and slow ticket sales don’t particularly bother her, either.

“I wasn’t there when those initial numbers were put together, but I don’t have a lot of faith in them,” Elam said of early Music City Star ridership projections. “But I do have faith in the numbers of the ridership continuing to go up.”

Rep. Susan Lynn, too, who vacated her House seat to run for the state Senate but lost to incumbent Sen. Mae Beavers in the GOP primary, considers herself among the Star-struck.

“There is no mass transit anywhere that completely pays for itself. Even our highways, the road construction is supported by the gas tax, and there is always more work to be done than money to pay for that work,” she said.

Beavers refused to comment on what she thinks of the Music City Star.

By contrast, Heather Scott, an independent candidate, considers that the rail line perhaps should be terminated. “When things aren’t efficient and we’re wasting money, they need to stop,” said Scott, who served on the Wilson County Commission from 2002 to this year.

“Mass transit funded by government is not the way to fund this program,” she added. “That should come from the private sector, and if the private sector is not doing it, it’s obviously not profitable or an advantageous project.”

Both major-party candidates for governor, Republican Bill Haslam and Democrat Mike McWherter, have said that while they generally support Middle Tennessee commuter-rail transit, the state’s budget is too tight and the economy too sluggish to talk of expansion anytime soon.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who presides over the Senate, said the state isn’t ready.

“The Music City Star has not exactly been a success,” he said. “It’s not being used like we hoped it would be.”

Nashville and the surrounding area is growing, Ramsey said, but not at the pace that demands the state seriously consider additional public rail lines to alleviate traffic congestion, yet.

Jim Gotto, a Republican running for Democrat Rep. Ben West’s Hermitage seat, said he is in favor of expanding rail transit but thinks the state should take it slow.

“Any time tax dollars are being spent — and if there’s any question on whether they’re being spent efficiently or not — officials have to be accountable for that,” said Gotto, a Metro councilman. “I’m not sure who you hold accountable at this point for that.”

“It’s a hard sell to the taxpayers if we’re not using it,” said Sam Coleman, a Metro councilman and Democrat facing off against Gotto to represent the 60th District, which stretches from Hermitage south to I-24.

Tennesseans aren’t accustomed to depending on public transportation, he said, adding that “the problem is with our citizens, not with the Music City Star operation.”