Despite widespread agreement that Nashville’s public transportation needs improvements, the city’s WeGo bus system will need to reduce services this year — and raise bus fares — if the mayor’s proposed budget is approved as it now stands.
The transit agency’s leaders presented to the Metro Council on Wednesday about an anticipated budget shortfall of $8.7 million. Without that money, WeGo says it will have to reduce hours or frequency of some bus routes and raise the cost of riding.
The reductions would move bus service in the opposite direction of the major expansion the transit agency has been seeking. WeGo CEO Steve Bland said bus service hours have increased 32% since 2013 — but would now need to be reduced by about 7%.
“We know that reliable transit service is central to the daily lives of thousands of Nashvillians, including some of our community’s most vulnerable citizens,” Bland told the council. “Regardless of how many or how few people may ride a service, somebody rides everything we operate, and impacts of service reductions or fare increases can range from inconvenience to severely compromising the quality of life of an individual.”
The threat of cutbacks has bus riders and transit advocates raising alarms.
The group Music City Riders United — made up of bus riders — rallied before the budget presentation. The group calls Mayor David Briley’s budget proposal “unacceptable,” and says it will hurt bus riders and increase racial inequity. The group is asking the Metro Council to add more funding.
The recently-formed coalition Connect Mid-TN says it is “disheartened” by the shortfall.
“Transit is a key connector to economic opportunity and enhances the quality of life of our citizens,” the group said.
At issue for WeGo is a funding gap caused mostly by a reduction in state money, as well as a dip in fare revenues and increasing costs of health insurance for employees.
The agency outlined the looming problem to the mayor in March, asking for $57.3 million to maintain current service levels (see detailed request as a PDF). The proposed budget gives the agency $48.6 million for operations.
“This means that service reductions and fare increases must be implemented to bridge the gap,” WeGo said in a statement to WPLN.
The agency says it will discuss specific cuts and fare increases with its board of directors, and accept public comment, in the coming weeks. Fare changes would begin in August and service changes by October.
The cost to ride WeGo buses was last increased in 2012, when they moved from $1.60 to $1.70. It's undetermined how much rates might go up this year.
In a statement, the mayor’s office did not comment on the pending cuts, instead emphasizing the amount of capital spending going toward an array of transportation areas, including streets, paving, sidewalks, greenways, traffic management and transit.
“Transit remains a major priority for Mayor Briley, and he is focused on what we can do today to improve service and increase ridership,” the statement reads.
Meanwhile, WeGo proposals to extend the hours of service and to increase frequency on some routes — at a cost of $5.3 million — are being shelved.
Council Reacts To Shortfall
The amount of funding for WeGo appeared to surprise and bother some members of the Metro Council.
Councilwoman Angie Henderson called it the “most disappointing” — and “indefensible” — piece of the mayor’s budget.
“I am concerned about the … transit death spiral. You start to dial down the frequency … then your ridership declines,” Henderson said. “It’s really important, I think, that we not go backward this year.”
Bland said the board of the Metro Transit Authority has advised the agency to pursue service reductions with a “surgical” touch — emphasizing that disadvantaged populations should not be unduly hurt, and that the hours of operation for the most popular bus routes be kept as intact as possible.
Councilman Anthony Davis said he wasn’t expecting a transit funding deficit this year, noting that transit was included in the mayor’s recent “State of Metro” speech. He said he is supportive of improving WeGo’s budget, but no council member committed to changing the funding amount.
Long-term Funding Question
The funding conversation has also renewed a call for Nashville to establish a dedicated funding source for transit — an idea that voters rejected last year. Metro had proposed a set of four tax increases to fund an overhaul of transit.
“This year’s funding shortfall continues to highlight the need for a dedicated, reliable, long-term funding source,” WeGo said this week. “Nashville remains one of the largest metropolitan areas in the United States without a dedicated funding stream for mass transit.”
The agency says it is stuck in a competition with other city priorities, with uncertainty lingering from year to year. Transit advocates Connect Mid-TN call the situation "a perfect example" of why dedicated funding is needed.
This story was updated Wednesday night to include information from the transit agency budget hearing in front of the Metro Council.