Nashville’s mayor is abandoning an $18 million downtown pedestrian bridge to instead fund numerous smaller bridge repairs and other projects across Davidson County.
The move announced Thursday by Mayor John Cooper is likely to be popular, since the bridge idea was widely criticized and then stalled out. But some officials questioned the decision, complicating what initially looked like a simple win for Cooper.
His staff spent the day chasing down answers for other officials and reporters before the mayor ultimately agreed to give the Metro Council a chance to review how he wants the funds reallocated.
Cooper won office by promising to spend more on outlying neighborhoods instead of downtown — where this bridge was supposed to connect the upscale Gulch and SoBro neighborhoods.
He’d already been a critic of the project while on the council, and he emphasized Thursday that Metro has been unable to get permission to build the bridge over train tracks controlled by CSX.
“So rather than allowing the funds to sit idle in a single project that remains mired in red tape and difficulty, I am freeing up these funds for important shovel-ready neighborhood priorities,” Cooper said. “There may be a Gulch bridge at some point in the future … but for right now, we need the money.”
Cooper said $13 million will be spread across 24 council districts, quickly funding repairs to the city’s 52 most urgent bridge and culvert repairs. (See full list as a PDF.)
Smaller amounts would double city spending on traffic calming and bikeways, replace a greenway bridge in Shelby Bottoms, fund emergency road repairs, fix streetlights and buy more trash and recycling cans.
Metro Public Works Director Mark Sturtevant says the bridge work will chip away at $131 million in backlogged repairs.
“Our bridge and culvert maintenance often gets overlooked … but they’re just as important when it comes to the safety of our city,” he said. “Funding … has been inconsistent over the last few years and it has left us with an urgent need.”
But here’s where the complications arise.
This new attention on the $18 million bridge revived questions about where that money was coming from in the first place.
That promise helped win the Metro Council’s approval. And it was emphasized in a “fact sheet” that’s still online today.
The problem is that such an arrangement never took another step.
The Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency was tagged as the group to collect those tax dollars from the Gulch, but the agency said Thursday it never began collections or took out a loan related to the bridge.
Then in 2016, under Mayor Megan Barry, the administration also told the council that $2.66 million from the overall $18 million project would be used to purchase an easement for the bridge. But that didn’t happen either. Those dollars came out of a different city account.
“That’s really disconcerting to me, and it was apparently par for the course at the time,” said Councilman Bob Mendes, chairman of the Budget and Finance Committee. “In retrospect, it seems like it was intentionally left vague to allow for multiple outcomes.”
Mendes, who raised questions Thursday, said he generally agrees that Cooper is shifting toward high-priority projects.
“[But] I still want to drill down to get more details. This does appear to be incurring debt,” he said.
In other words, Metro never had the $18 million in hand. The city will have to take on more debt to pursue the various bridge and public works items announced Thursday.
Cooper’s Council Days
Another point of tension traces back to a rule change that Mendes and Cooper spearheaded together in 2016.
At the time, the council decided to limit how a mayor can shift money between projects. Moving dollars between two bridge projects is OK, but the council decided it has the power to review any attempts to move money between different categories.
Mendes suggests that shifting from the Gulch bridge to streetlights or trash cans oversteps that rule.
The mayor’s administration initially said the rule doesn’t apply to Thursday’s reallocation, because these funds predated the 2016 rule change.
“It’s very much in keeping with the spirit of his legislation,” said Ben Eagles, a mayor’s office staffer.
Nevertheless, by day’s end, Cooper decided to adhere to the rule, “in the interest of full transparency and out of respect for the Council process,” a spokesman wrote to WPLN.
Among those who will review the reallocation is Councilman Larry Hagar, another strong Gulch bridge critic — and one of three “no” votes, along with Cooper, when Metro purchased the easement for $2.66 million.
Hagar attended the mayor’s announcement and called it a logical and responsible move by Cooper.
“The bridge can wait,” he said.
Yet Hagar, who often grumbles about delays to infrastructure work in his Old Hickory district, said he wouldn’t want one of his projects taken away.
“I’m worried about it. Of course I would be,” Hagar said. “[But] I understand why [Cooper’s] doing it, because it’s a priority.”
This story has been updated to clarify which mayoral administration oversaw the $2.66 million easement payment.