Tennessee Senator Reverses Herself on Transit

Marsha Blackburn slammed public transit but embraced funding for a Memphis bus line in the span of a week.

Senator Marsha Blackburn called transit-lovers "socialists" three days before tweeting praise for a new grant for rapid bus route in Memphis she helped secure. Image: Gage Skidmore
Senator Marsha Blackburn called transit-lovers "socialists" three days before tweeting praise for a new grant for rapid bus route in Memphis she helped secure. Image: Gage Skidmore

Tennessee Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn can’t make up her mind whether she loves public transit or considers it an unreliable mode of transportation primarily used by “socialists.”

The suburban Nashville politician tweeted an article last week about Uber and Lyft expanding into the health care industry by ferrying patients to medical appointments — and added a superfluous dig at transit users to her message.

“Socialists take note: Public transit won’t take you home from the hospital? The free market has a solution,” Blackburn wrote.

Yet three days later, Blackburn proudly trumped a $12-million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation that she helped secure for the Memphis Area Transit Authority’s new bus rapid transit route connecting the University of Memphis to the city’s downtown.

“This is a tremendous asset to the opportunity zone project that is well underway in downtown Memphis and we know that the mayor and his team are going to do a good job of putting that money to good use,” Blackburn announced in a video posted to Twitter last week. “So to Mayor Strickland and the citizens of Memphis, congratulations!”

The Tennessee junior senator’s abrupt turnaround raises an important consideration — is Marsha Blackburn a socialist? Congressional aides say that’s unlikely.

“I’m not sure if it’s saving face or it’s kind of her deal. She isn’t a very consistent individual,” said one House aide in the state’s delegation, who requested anonymity because the offices work together to secure federal funding for Tennessee projects.

But Blackburn invoking socialism is completely wrongheaded and unnecessary. Even Marsha Blackburn understands the importance of fast, reliable bus service can provide for her constituents.

Uber and Lyft can certainly provide alternatives for caregivers and patients, but transit also takes people to their doctors. Nashville Tennessean columnist Alex Hubbard took Nashville’s paratransit service Access Ride to get to his medical appointments.

“Just because public transit may not be up to the task doesn’t mean it can’t be with the right investment, and just because someone may not like it doesn’t mean no one needs it,” he wrote. “That doesn’t mean that anyone who believes differently than Marsha Blackburn deserves to be called names on Twitter.”

Blackburn launched her career in politics after working as an event planner and image management consultant. She does not have a background in transit planning. Indeed, her focus is typically elsewhere: A member of Congress since 2003, she has introduced 190 bills, including one to name three post offices after famous Tennesseans, another to study whether a Civil War battle site should become a national park, and another to consider proper labeling of wool suits and cashmere sweaters.

And she has been on a social and televised media tear lately against House Democrats leading the impeachment inquiry into President Trump and Chinese officials who have thwarted pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong and elections in Taiwan.

Blackburn knows the importance of delivering infrastructure projects in her first term as a freshman member, who won her race in 2018 by 11 points, but trailed badly in the state’s two largest counties. Perhaps she would do better in those urban areas if she laid off the name-calling and continued providing transit for her state.

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