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Nashville's Epic Transit Defeat Offers Hard Lessons for Advocates

The city's new mayor has vowed to start working on a new transit proposal, just days after voters rejected a $5.4 billion plan by a 2-1 margin.

nashville transit
The proposed plan would have included 26 miles of light rail and a massive new transit tunnel beneath downtown.
(Let's Move Nashville)
As far as transportation ballot measures go, few have gone down in defeat as decisively as Nashville’s ambitious $5.4 billion transit expansion effort last week.

Voters disapproved of the “Let’s Move Nashville” proposal by a margin of 64 percent to 36 percent. The only areas in the city to actually support the idea were near downtown. (Nashville’s city and county governments are consolidated, so more of its residents live in outlying areas compared to many cities.) Opponents cited many reasons for their stance. Some thought it was too expensive; others believed it did not serve enough of the region. Still others said they feared the plan would speed up gentrification and force people out of their homes.

The defeat was especially startling because local transportation measures generally fare well at the ballot box. Roughly 70 percent of such measures pass nationally. And Nashville’s plan had the support of some of the biggest players in the community, including the mayor, the chamber of commerce and even the Nashville Predators hockey team.

The results of last week's referendum also caused jitters for transportation leaders in other sprawling Southern cities, which, like Nashville, find their streets increasingly crowded as more people move to the area. Advocates in places like Austin and Charlotte are taking note.

One of the biggest questions facing transit advocates, in Nashville and elsewhere, is whether last week’s letdown was the product of a very strange election in very strange circumstances, or whether there were fundamental problems with the plan that ended up on the ballot.

Last week’s election certainly was not routine.

Nashville Mayor Megan Barry unveiled the plan back in November, a few months before it was revealed that she had been having an affair with the head of her police security team. Barry was forced to resign in March. Her resignation left the role as the chief promoter of the plan to newly installed Mayor David Briley, who had already supported the idea.

But Briley -- and Nashville voters -- had plenty of other things on their mind. Not only did Briley have to take over the executive branch, but he is also running in a snap election to keep the post. He faces a dozen other candidates in the election, which will be held May 24 (early voting has already started), with a possible runoff several weeks later. Whoever wins that contest would have to run again next year to serve a full term.

The political chaos from Barry’s resignation overshadowed the transportation plan, which was both ambitious and complex. Over several decades, it would have built four new light rail lines, introduced rapid bus service, constructed an underground tunnel for transit below downtown, and added bike lanes and sidewalks. To pay for all the improvements, the plan called for hiking the local sales tax, plus increasing taxes on hotel stays, rental cars and businesses.

The plan explicity emphasized transit rather than road expansion, which some opponents found problematic -- but that, too, was a product of local politics. Tennessee lawmakers in 2017 passed a sweeping transportation funding package that included increases on the state’s gas and diesel taxes in order to pay for road improvements. The law will pay for improvements to interstates and other state highways in Nashville. The state transportation law also gave permission to large cities, including Nashville, to ask voters to increase taxes to pay for transit improvements.

The law, though, also kept earlier restrictions that would force cities to get state permission before putting dedicated lanes for bus rapid transit on state highways. That was one (but not the only) reason the “Let’s Move Nashville” plan included so many light rail projects rather than bus rapid transit, which many critics said was a better fit for the city than rail. 

But there were larger issues with the plan, as well.  

Nashville Councilmember Freddie O’Connell, who represents a downtown district, supported the plan. But he says many residents didn’t feel like they had any say in how the plan was put together. Local leaders gathered community input on their transportation needs for several years before the plan took shape, but, once Barry unveiled it, he says there was not enough time to explain it or change it.

“It was a sprint from fall to the spring elections. We didn’t give people a chance to say anything about it until the election,” O’Connell says.

Take the sales tax hike. Opponents noted that the ballot measure would have given Nashville the highest sales tax rate in the country. (Tennessee has no income tax.) But organizers didn’t get the message out that the state transportation law -- the same one that hiked the gas tax -- also reduced sales taxes on groceries. “Let’s Move Nashville” also would have reduced transit fares for youth, seniors and people in poverty, but few people realized that, O’Connell says.

The downtown tunnel was also controversial, and hugely expensive. But it came out of a big fight four years ago over a proposed plan for a bus rapid transit system downtown. Back then, the legislature eventually got involved and ultimately killed the project. That convinced local leaders that they needed a way to get people in and out of the city center without radically changing the streetscape, which is why the tunnel came to be a part of the plan.

Other observers took away different lessons from last week’s defeat. In a blog for Strong Towns, which advocates for incremental changes to city planning, resident Ethan Greene says Nashville leaders bit off too much with the latest ballot measure.

“Instead of investing in what it can’t afford, Nashville (and others like it) should grow their transit incrementally,” Greene wrote. “If bus rapid transit (BRT) is something the city would like to include in their transit mix, consider adding one to two lines, or upgrading current lines. Instead of laying track for a whole light rail system at once that extends into sprawling suburbs, lay a track in the urban core that suffers most from congestion.”

But Art Guzzetti, the vice president of policy for the American Public Transportation Association, a transit industry group, says many successful light rail systems got their start with ambitious proposals at the ballot box. Denver and Dallas both started their networks that way. Many cities, such as Salt Lake City and Phoenix, initially lost when they put similar measures to voters, but later came up with plans that got public approval, he adds.

Nashville’s defeat could just reflect the magnitude of the city’s plan, Guzzetti says. “They went for a substantial measure,” he says. “It wasn’t just a routine thing, it was a major question they were asking. The burden was steep, and it was a complex path to get there.”

One way other cities have overcome previous defeats is to rethink who they’re asking for support. In 2012, voters in a 12-county region around Atlanta overwhelmingly rejected a one-cent sales tax hike to pay for major transportation improvements. But more recently, Atlanta and individual counties have approved substantial transportation funding measures, Guzzetti points out. “The smaller the voter base, the less money you’ll take in, but the better your chance of winning,” he says.

For areas like Nashville, where it’s unlikely that a smaller region could vote on a new package, it’s important to convince residents of outlying areas how they would benefit from transit improvements, he adds. “Salt Lake City had successful campaigns that said, 'Some of us use it, all of us need it.' It’s important to appeal to people who aren’t transit users,” he says.

Tennessee law says Nashville must wait at least a year before going back to voters with another transit package, but that may be beside the point. Transportation packages can take years to develop, and the political upheaval will only make that process more difficult.  

“With such a strong rebuke at the polls, I don’t know that any mayor elected in the next 18 months is going to want to spend the political capital on guiding the community through this,” says O’Connell, the Nashville council member. But he thinks that city officials can at least benefit from the work that has already been done on studying the region’s needs and potential options.

“My hope is that we’re not back at the drawing board, or if we are, it’s with a drawing board with a great picture already drawn on it,” he says.

Briley, the mayor, says the defeat won’t deter him from pushing for transit improvements.

“I can tell you that we're not waiting for a referendum to work on transit,” he said last week. “We're already starting to think about what the next steps are going to be, with or without a referendum.”

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