Back to Square One for Nashville Transit

Local advocates say a package with more emphasis on core bus service and affordable housing could perform better at the polls.

Photo:  Rebajae/Wikimedia
Photo: Rebajae/Wikimedia

Nashville’s $5.4 billion transit improvement package went down in a lopsided 64-36 vote yesterday.

The proposal won praise from national transit experts for fortifying basic bus service in addition to mapping out new light rail lines and rapid busways where demand for transit is greatest.

The headwinds were strong, however. The main political champion for the transit package, Mayor Megan Barry, resigned due to a sex scandal two months before the election. In recent weeks, dark money poured into the opposition campaign.

But the margin of defeat suggests the transit referendum wouldn’t have passed even if Barry stayed in office and the Koch brothers stayed out of the debate. Acting Mayor David Briley supported the referendum, as did the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce. And in the end, the pro-transit side outspent the anti-transit side. The vote still wasn’t close.

Now Nashville is back at square one. There’s consensus in the city that traffic and car dependence are problems, but there’s no fallback plan for transit.

Nora Kern, executive director of Walk Bike Nashville, backed the transit referendum as part of a coalition of 130 community groups. It’s not clear what’s next for Nashville transit, she said.

“It will depend on who wins the mayor’s race,” she said. “My guess is it will become a main feature of mayoral races.”

With the special election set for May 24, Briley is the leading candidate right now in a field of 12, according to the Tennessean. One of the other candidates is jeff obafemi carr, a high-level organizer for the opposition group NoTax4Tracks (he “chooses to lowercase his name in a gesture of humility,” the Tennessean‘s Joey Garrison reports).

In the meantime, Kern has a few ideas about how the campaign for better transit should regroup.

For one, she thinks nonprofit groups like her own should play a bigger role in developing the proposal, and the Chamber should take a step back. In addition, she said, a new plan might focus less on light rail and more on buses, sidewalks, and housing.

“The questions of affordable housing and transportation have to be more closely linked,” she said. “We lost a lot of the progressive movement because there were concerns about displacement.

The “People’s Alliance for Transit, Housing and Employment,” for example, opposed the measure, demanding more assurances about funding for below-market housing, more bus service improvements, and free fares for low-income residents. The package on the ballot did mention preserving affordable housing but did not devote funds to it [PDF].

Metro Council Member Angie Henderson, an advocate for walkability who opposed the transit measure, said on Twitter she thinks a smaller package with less emphasis on light rail is the way to go.

The sooner Nashville can lay out a plausible path forward, the better. Even among transit-starved southern cities, Nashville stands out for its abysmal transit system, with ridership well below peers like Charlotte and Atlanta.

  • Courtney

    I think Nashville is a ways off from being capable to support light rail but I could totally see them beefing up their bus service, installing and/or improving sidewalks, and fortifying affordable housing in future light rail and bus rapid transit corridors.

  • LazyReader

    As predicted, Nashville voters have rejected a multi-billion-dollar light-rail plan by a margin of 64 to 36%. Nashvilll-ians, Nashvillites, Nashy’s whatever they call themselves; were smart enough to back out of long-term obligations of a multi billion dollar boondoggle that served absolutely no purpose except to pump up the pocket books of rail consortium’s. Especially in the face of declining ridership. Nashville has lost 22% of it’s riders since 2010, any further planning of
    expensive transit projects seems pointless. Of course, these ideas never
    seem to truly die, so don’t be surprised if there is some attempt to
    reanimate it.

    “Nashville stands out for it’s abysmal transit system”

    Translation: They don’t have the skrilla to spend big bucks on wasteful projects that will do absolutely nothing to solve congestion. Rail transit is obsolete except maybe two or three US urban areas. Buses can move as many people as light rail (They don’t call it light for it’s weight, but it’s low capacity), Use pre-existing infrastructure (our roads and highways) and unlike rail which takes years to build, new buses can be ready in a matter of weeks. 5.6 Billion!!!! For 1/1000th the money they could spend on an advertising blitz of TV ads and billboards encouraging people to carpool more. Ride sharing services have decimated public transit ridership in small cities and towns, namely because Point-to-Point destination technology is no match for door-to-door destination technology.

  • TakeFive

    You cover the anti-gentrification concerns well. The other Yuge problem was the vote apparently lost Big in outlying areas and only 5 districts out of 35 voted in favor. Per the Tennessean: https://www.tennessean.com/story/news/politics/2018/05/01/nashville-transit-vote-davidson-county-mass-transit/564991002/

    The transit plan was successfully framed by skeptics as a project that primarily benefited downtown neighborhoods to address a traffic problem that is regional.

  • TakeFive

    You obviously don’t understand light rail and it’s benefits but you seem to be making more of a political choice than strategic. Now, if you were talking about replacing light rail with trackless trains I’d take you more seriously.

  • Taufik Abidin

    Easy way is ban cars and motorcycles from roads where you want the LRT to be, make it only busses. And then decide which can be shared with cargos (trucks and delivery vans). Then make sidewalks and bikelane.

  • Taufik Abidin

    Trains and LRT are wonderful as long as their lane/tracks are separated from private automobiles. Do the same for the bus and you get the same effect. Time, speed, and frequency can be much higher.

  • Taufik Abidin

    Banning the cars on most of the roads is the way to go.

  • LazyReader

    Transit agencies are more interested in building infrastructure empires than in moving people. Politicians are more interested in ribbon cutting new infrastructure at the cost of million/billions than they are in maintaining their existing stock.

    Nashville could alleviate it’s traffic problems better by
    – charging single occupancy driver congestion fees in it’s most congested roads particularly during Rush Hour and use the money to repair their crumbling roads, bridges and tunnels.
    – Improve traffic signal coordination to move more vehicles per hour.
    – Convert the neighboring county’s HOV lanes into HOV and busways.
    – offer tax incentives for residents who use their cars to shuttle people.
    – Encourage urban cycling, 1,000 cyclers means 1,000 fewer cars.
    – “Paint is cheap, rails systems are extremely expensive.” Instead of expensive trains, many cities can attract just as many riders onto transit by painting buses on specific routes in distinctive colors.

  • QuestionQue

    Buses carry much fewer passengers per vehicle than LRT. Loading times are longer due to the smaller doors and if someone in a wheelchair needs to get on and off the time wait time is much longer. Acceleration is much faster with a LRT. In order to increase line capacity with a bus you need to run more buses and a large expense is paying operators. Even with a separate right of way for buses, and local automobile users hate to give up a traffic lane, buses are not as wonderful as LRT.

  • Jason

    This plan was apparently thinking in terms of 10-15 years. It seemed like a smart, proactive attempt to try to get ahead of anticipated population growth.

  • Taufik Abidin

    Elevate the platform. Change the doors, modify the busses. Hating to give up their lane is something you have to fight for if you want to alleviate congestion

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sustained Koch Brothers-funded attack. Since then, the city has elected a new mayor and decided on a new vision for transit. Yesterday, Mayor Megan Barry said a light rail line would be the first project funded under her plan, which is likely to go before voters next year. While that moves forward, there is a lot Nashville can do in the meantime to improve its lackluster bus network.