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Taxpayers Buy Tickets for 3 of 10 Music City Star Riders

The Music City Star’s ridership has been on the uptick lately. The commuter rail line from Nashville to Lebanon exceeded 1,000 weekday “passenger trips” twice last month, tallying some of the highest ridership numbers to date.

But almost a third of those who take the train daily are government employees who ride on the taxpayers’ dime, according to the Regional Transportation Authority. And the train still isn’t meeting the 1,500 passenger-trips a day that planners predicted at the outset would be the norm by 2007, a year after the train first launched.

The Music City Star averaged just 866 daily riders in September this year.

The Tennessee Department of Transportation pays $500,000 to put 1,715 participating employees on Nashville-area public transit, including Metro buses and the Music City Star.

But Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey signaled recently that government workers may in the future be asked to pay their own way on the Music City Star.

“We want to make sure it pays for itself,” the Blountville Republican told TNReport during an interview earlier this month. “Taxpayers shouldn’t be subsidizing that.”

Ramsey said he’s not as concerned by the fact that 27 percent of riders are state employees as he is that taxpayers are “picking up the tab” for their tickets.

Another 2 percent of the riders are Metro Nashville workers who also don’t pay the $5 one-way fee to ride the train.

“TDOT supports this program because it helps reduce congestion on our roadways and in turn, helps improve air quality in the Nashville area – and it helps encourage people to use transit who might not otherwise do so,” Julie Oaks, the department’s spokeswoman, said via e-mail.

She said the state is required to reduce emissions to meet standards of the Environmental Protection Agency, and encouraging employees to take public transit is one way to do that.

The department issues those riders a swipe card and, relying on the honor system, allows state employees ride public transit to and from work.

The Music City Star is a commuter rail line that makes 12 trips between downtown Nashville and Lebanon each week day.

It costs $4 million of the Regional Transportation Authority’s $6.3 million mostly government-funded budget to keep the train running.

The state covers about $1.3 million of the RTA’s budget, and Metro adds another $1.6 million to keep the train chugging along. The rest is made up of $2 million in federal funds, an expected $800,000 in ticket-sales revenue and another $600,000 in fees from municipalities to support specific transportation lines.

State and local governments aren’t the only employers that pay for their workers to ride.

Private employers and schools including Vanderbilt University, Belmont University, Pinnacle Bank and Letter Logic all spring for the cost of their employees’ tickets so they can ride free or at reduced rates, according to RTA.