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Koch Brothers Quietly Seek To Ban New Mass Transit In Tennessee

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"Koch Brothers Quietly Seek To Ban New Mass Transit In Tennessee"

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A rendering of Nashville's Amp bus system.

A rendering of Nashville’s Amp bus system.

CREDIT: Nashville Metropolitan Transit Authority

The Tennessee Senate passed a bill last week that, if approved, would broadly ban mass transit projects in the region, an anti-transit effort that’s gotten some help in the state from Charles and David Koch.

On Thursday, the Tennessee Senate passed SB 2243, which includes an amendment that “prohibits metropolitan governments and any transit authorities created by a metropolitan government from constructing, maintaining or operating any bus rapid transit system using a separate lane, or other separate right-of-way, dedicated solely to the use of such bus rapid transit system on any state highway or state highway.” The amendment is aimed at Nashville’s proposed $174 million rapid bus system called the Amp, but would apply to any mass transit system proposed in Nashville.

The Amp, a proposed 7.1-mile bus rapid transit system that would cut commute times along one of Nashville’s major corridors, has been staunchly opposed by the Tennessee branch of Americans for Prosperity, a lobbying organization founded in part by the Koch brothers. AFP’s Tennessee director told the Tennessean that SB 2243 was the result of a conversation he’d had with the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Jim Tracy. In addition, AFP pushed the Senate to vote on the bill — efforts that led to StopAmp.org, one of the lead groups opposing the Amp, thanking AFP in a press release after SB 2243 passed the Senate. The transit system’s opponents say it would create traffic problems and safety issues due to its middle-lane location, a claim that a spokesman for the Amp Coalition disputes.

Holly McCall, Nashville’s Metropolitan Transit Authority’s spokesperson for the Amp project, told ThinkProgress AFP has kept a low profile throughout the campaign for and against the Amp. She said she’d suspected AFP was involved in the Amp’s opposition, but didn’t know for sure until StopAmp.org thanked the group in their press release.

“It’s pretty tough to fight that kind of money — AFP gets funds from the Koch brothers, and they’re billionaires,” she said. “We continue to work our local campaign, and we’re probably going to make some tweaks to the design — we’re interested in compromise, because if we don’t, our entire future transit plan is going to be dictated by people who live out of state.”

Nashville has a bus system, McCall said, but it’s not enough to transport people throughout the suburbs and into the city, especially not as the city grows. By 2035, almost 1 million new residents will come to live in the Nashville area, according to the MTA.

“It would be hugely transformational,” McCall said of the Amp. “If we don’t do it now, we’re going to be so far behind, and it’s really going to start to hinder our economic development and growth.”

Mike Schatzlein, chairman of the Amp coalition, said in a statement that the Senate’s passage of the bill was an overreach of its authority.

“The Senate basically took a local project that has been in development for five years and voted an amendment to kill it,” Schatzlein said. “The project is the first leg of a regional transit system, so this vote impacts all of Middle Tennessee.”

AFP has chapters in 35 states, and this isn’t the first time they’ve lobbied against local energy and transit initiatives. Last Summer in Georgia, AFP launched a “multi-pronged, grassroots driven initiative” that urged citizens to pressure members of the state’s Public Service Commission to reject an effort to require Georgia Power to expand its use of solar energy. That effort had won the support of members of the Atlanta Tea Party, who saw an expansion of solar in the state an expansion of their ability to choose where their power comes from, but AFP still claimed that the expansion would increase electricity bills and “reduce the reliability of every appliance and electronics gadget” in residents’ homes. Despite AFP’s efforts, the Georgia PSC ultimately voted in favor of requiring Georgia Power to expand its solar usage.

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