Middle TN Lawmakers Say the Answer to Traffic Congestion May Be Private Businesses

Nashville Public Radio, Feb. 3, 2016

By: Chas Sisk

Middle Tennessee's highways are becoming more and more clogged, but efforts at mass transit have fizzled over the past decade.

The solution, some local lawmakers say, may be to bring in private businesses as partners.

A group of Democratic and Republican legislators have filed a measure, Senate Bill 2093, that they say would let state and local governments create "public-private partnerships" with business consortiums.

Public-private partnerships have a long history, from private turnpikes to highway rest stops. Interest has been renewed in recent years as states seek alternative sources for funding.

They haven't made their way into transportation projects in Tennessee, says Steve Bland, the head of Nashville's Metro Transit Authority, because companies want assurances government officials will follow through.

"There are literally hundreds of companies around the world (putting) tens of billions of dollars into this, and when they're looking at markets to do this in, they're looking for stability."

Tennessee legislators say they can provide that stability.

The Public-Private Transportation Act would lay out how a partnership between a private company and government could work, and it would give partnerships the power to borrow, purchase right-of-way and collect fees.

Sponsors include two Republicans — Murfreesboro Sen. Bill Ketron and Franklin Rep. Charles Sargent, and two Democrats — Nashville Sen. Jeff Yarbro and Nashville Rep. John Ray Clemmons.

Other states have such agreements. One is being used to build a rail line to the Denver airport. In Texas, they've been used to build toll roads.

The main complaint is the partnerships enrich private corporations while leaving taxpayers on the hook if they fail.

But supporters say, without some fresh thinking, Middle Tennessee is doomed to a future of congested roads.