WeGo Transit proposes bus changes amid budget shortfall

Nashvilleu2019s transportation agency prepares for increased fares, adjusts multiple routes

Nashvilleu2019s transportation agency prepares for increased fares, adjusts multiple routes

WeGo Transit, Metro Nashville’s public transportation agency, is facing an $8.7 million budget shortfall for the upcoming fiscal year, a loss that transit officials said will be met with increased bus fares as well as eliminated and restructured routes in areas of Southwest Nashville.

If approved in its current form at the June 27 WeGo Transit board of directors meeting, fare increases—the first increase since 2012—will go into effect Aug. 1, followed by service changes Sept. 29, according to WeGo Transit.

The proposed service cuts, formally presented at WeGo Transit’s May 23 board of directors meeting, come at a time when more Nashville residents are utilizing public transit, according to data provided by WeGo. A total of 9.34 million trips were recorded in fiscal year 2017-18, up 2% from the previous year, according to WeGo.

“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,” WeGo Transit CEO Steve Bland said at a May 15 Metro Nashville budget hearing.

Overall, WeGo’s plan to realign routes means 78% of riders will experience little to no change in their daily commute, according to Amanda Clelland, WeGo Transit public information officer.

However, the cuts eliminate nine routes and adjust or combine 14 others, including seven in the southwest area of Nashville. Riders who use Route 1-100 Oaks and Route 2-Belmont will transition to other routes in the system, according to the proposed changes.

Clelland said the two eliminated routes in Southwest Nashville, along with five other route adjustments, were chosen for cuts due to low ridership. The two routes service about 11 passengers per hour and account for a combined 0.7% of overall current ridership in Davidson County, according to WeGo.

Twenty percent of passengers will need to seek alternate transfers or walk greater distances, while the remaining 2% of passengers will face a complete loss of service outside one-quarter mile from a bus stop. Additionally, officials are proposing various fare increases for adults and senior riders.

“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,” Bland said. “In cases where individuals’ lives may be severely impacted, we will attempt in every way possible to work one on one to try to identify alternatives.”

Push for dedicated funding

Metro funds approximately 58% of WeGo’s total operating budget, followed by a mix of state, federal and self-generated funds. While funding provided by Metro has remained flat for three years at $48 million, Clelland said the current deficit is due to rising administrative costs and $3.8 million the agency no longer receives from the Tennessee Department of Transportation.

According to Bland, Nashville is one of three cities in the top 40 in population nationwide that lacks a dedicated funding source for public transportation. The passing of the IMPROVE Act in 2017 by the Tennessee General Assembly allows local governments to establish dedicated funding for transit through a voter referendum process. The city attempted this, but the transit referendum failed in May 2018.

“This [funding deficit] puts [Metro] in an absolutely unenviable position of having us in competition with other extremely critical services such as education and public safety,” Bland said.

District 34 Council Member Angie Henderson, who represents parts of Green Hills where WeGo is proposing cuts and route redesigns, said she finds the cuts “extremely disappointing.”

“This $8.7 million deficiency from a funding perspective is the most disappointing thing that I saw in the mayor’s budget,” Henderson said.

Henderson said city leaders should direct their focus to improve the public transportation system by either funding WeGo’s budget or letting voters decide on a dedicated funding initiative through another transit referendum.

“I am concerned about the transit death spiral,” Henderson said. “You start to dial down the frequency of routes, and then your ridership declines; the community engagement declines. Transit is more successful with higher frequency.”

Community feedback

According to Clelland, WeGo Transit does not expect to receive any additional funding from Metro to address the deficit ahead of the June 27 board meeting. Due to that likelihood, she said WeGo hosted a series of public meetings in late May and early June to help riders understand how to approach services under the new system.

“The fact of the matter is $8.7 million is a lot,” Clelland said. “Unless someone comes in with a check, it’s going to be difficult to make changes. But we do think there’s room in some areas if that public outcry is enough to give us reason to look at the proposal again and see if there are alternatives we haven’t thought of.”

As WeGo spreads the message of its proposed changes, local transit groups are adding their voices to the conversation by urging government leaders to fund public transportation, including Transit Now Nashville, Music City Riders United and the newly established Connect Mid TN, the latter of which is a coalition of nearly 30 companies and organizations advocating for transportation improvements in Middle Tennessee.

In a statement, Connect Mid TN officials said they are “disheartened” WeGo is facing difficult decisions about cutting routes and raising fares.

“While we understand and appreciate Mayor [David] Briley’s budget reflects steps to address inequities in our city, Connect Mid-TN believes that transit is a key connector to economic opportunity and enhances the quality of life of our citizens,” officials said in a statement.

The organization said until there is a second transit referendum, it hopes city leaders will prioritize transit equity, “even when faced with difficult budget decisions.”

Henderson said she supports establishing a dedicated funding source  for WeGo in the future and urges other Metro members to do the same.

“I hope that [Metro] will recognize that transportation and transit is something that does touch all across this county,” Henderson said. “It’s really important that we do not go backwards.”

WeGo Transit’s board of directors is expected to vote on the proposed changes at 1:30 p.m. on June 27 in room 103AB at the Music City Center, 201 5th Ave. S., Nashville. Metro Nashville Council is expected to adopt in late June a budget for fiscal year 2019-20, which begins July 1.