Commuter rail money puts train on track

Posted on November 21, 2005

The Music City Star, Nashville’s first commuter rail line, is back on track. Last week, the U.S. Senate appropriated the final $6.2 million needed for the Music City Star. The Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) is now likely to go back to the banks to negotiate a bridge loan. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said he worked hard to ensure that the $6 million was included in the final conference report of the transportation appropriation bill that passed last week in the Senate and is likely to pass in the House later this month. “The project’s future could have been in jeopardy without this federal funding, and I am pleased that we were able to help Nashville area residents score an important victory,” Frist said. Sen. Lamar Alexander said as Nashville continues to grow, investments in different modes of transportation are needed to limit congestion and air pollution. “This funding is critical to ensure that the Music City Star leaves the station in 2006,” Alexander said. RTA has been working with banks on a bridge loan for several months to get the first train running as early in 2006 as possible. The original plan was to get three commuter trains running twice a day between downtown Nashville and Lebanon by the end of 2005. That plan had to be adjusted because of funding issues, namely the final $6.2 million in federal appropriations that were missing. RTA began trying to negotiate the bridge loan months ago. However, a snag hampered the project when bank loan negotiations were not favorable for RTA. RTA’s Rail Project Manager Allyson Shumate said the rate on the bank loan that RTA was negotiating was too high. “Now that we have the conference report showing that the appropriation is coming through, we will probably be going back to the bank now that the risk is significantly lower and see if they can issue some kind of a line of credit at a better rate,” Shumate said. “And then we’ll evaluate whether it’s worth taking the money now and borrowing or just waiting for the appropriation to come through.” That final decision would be made by RTA’s board, which consists of government leaders of Davidson and eight surrounding counties, government appointees, and representatives of the Tennessee Department of Transportation. But Shumate said while a bank loan back in the summer would have saved RTA six to eight months of time, a bridge loan now could save up to four months. The actual money for the appropriation is expected to reach the local level by spring. Paul Ballard, CEO of the Metropolitan Transit Authority who chairs the RTA committee overseeing the project, said in last month’s MTA meeting that banks are used to looking at track records and since this was Nashville’s first commuter rail it was hard to negotiate a loan. The $39.7 million commuter rail project is financed with 80 percent federal dollars, 10 percent state and 10 percent local. RTA expects 1,350 daily passengers will use the commuter train in its first year of operation. Passenger totals are expected to rise to 1,533 in the second year of operation. For more commuter rail information, visit www.rta-ride.org and click on the Services link.