Nashville's $6 billion transit plan includes light rail and express bus systems in a 10-county region.

DALLAS – Transportation planning groups in middle Tennessee have given their blessings to a 25-year, $5.97 billion transit program aimed at relieving congestion in Nashville and the surrounding region.

No funding has yet been identified for the nMotion plan, which was approved unanimously Wednesday by the Middle Tennessee Regional Transportation Authority and Thursday by directors of Nashville Metropolitan Transit Authority.

The three-phase proposal includes 46 miles of light rail, 98 miles of freeway bus rapid transit, 82 miles of arterial rapid buses, 200 miles of pedestrian upgrades, and 150 miles of express bus routes on the shoulders of existing highways.

Nashville Mayor Megan Barry said she plans to propose a dedicated local funding source for the long-term plan before the Tennessee General Assembly convenes for its 2017 session.

"We're going to have to be diligent in how we consider how we pay for it," Barry said. "That is exactly our challenge."

Potential sources include an increase in the local sales tax or in the local government share of the state sales tax. Another option is a public-private partnership to build and operate the transit lines, like the Purple Line light rail project in Maryland, which is enabled by a Tennessee law passed in 2015.

Estimates that the region will have 1 million new residents by 2040 give urgency to implementing the regional transit plan quickly, Barry said.

"This plan must be big and bold, and it has to start now," she said. "Clearly we've got transit issues in this region. We've got to see people moving faster and I think the plan lays it out."

Projects in the proposal that are set to get underway over the next six to 15 years should be accelerated to begin within the next five years, Barry said.

"I would like to see it done much more quickly," Barry said. "I think all of us hear from our constituents repeatedly that traffic is not getting any better. I would encourage us to put a shovel in the ground today."

Approval by the 28 mayors on the regional planning boards is a key endorsement for the plan, said Steve Bland, CEO of the Nashville MTA.

"The nMotion plan is the first step to building out a transit system the region needs, based on what the market can support and what people say they will use," Bland said.

"If we continue to be a city that we only think about the auto when we plan for what we're going to do, we're really going to be limited," he said.

The traffic congestion problem is more acute in some areas of the region than others, Bland said.

"Frankly, there's no expectation that this will move at the same pace and the same rate throughout the region," Bland said. "But every county and every city in our 10-county service area has a stake in the outcome."

The rail projects to be funded include a commuter line from Nashville to Clarksville, additional service on an existing rail line, and a light rail line to Nashville International Airport.

The new rail and bus lines would require $338 million of additional operating costs for the RTA and MTA.

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