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Nashville's $3B Transportation Plan Has 'Something for Everybody'

Nashville Mayor Freddie O'Connell wants voters to approve a half-cent sales tax to fund transit-service improvements and upgrades to the city’s sidewalks and roads.

Traffic on Broadway in downtown Nashville
Traffic is a problem all around Nashville. (David Kidd/Governing)
In Brief:
  • Nashville Mayor Freddie O'Connell released a $3.1 billion transportation plan called “Choose How You Move.”

  • It includes increased bus frequency along with new transit routes, sidewalks, traffic signals and other upgrades.

  • City voters rejected a transit referendum, which was centered on light rail service, back in 2018.

  • Nashville residents will get another chance to vote on dedicated local funding for public transit this fall. The plan for how to spend it looks a lot different than the one they rejected six years ago.

    Nashville Mayor Freddie O'Connell unveiled a transportation improvement plan last week that includes major improvements to bus service, dozens of miles of new sidewalks, 600 new traffic signals and a network of complete streets with improved cycling and pedestrian infrastructure. O’Connell, a longtime public-transit advocate who previously served as board chair for the local transit authority, has been publicly teasing the plan since before his election last fall. O'Connell has said that Nashville needs much better public transit to accommodate the astronomical growth it’s experienced over the last 25 years.

    But in unveiling his plan, he has focused on its proposed benefits to drivers, bikers and pedestrians at least as much as benefits to bus riders. “I feel like we really did dial in something that has something for everybody, at the most reasonable cost,” O'Connell says. “It’s something that sets the city up for decades of much more comfortable growth.”

    The plan, which the city says would cost about $3.1 billion to implement, is called “Choose How You Move.” It would be paid for with the proceeds of a new half-cent sales tax, if the Metro Council signs off this spring and voters approve it in November.

    Coordinated Investments

    Nashville is unusually car-dependent for a city of its size, and often ranks high on “worst commute” rankings. The mayor's plan proposes “a coordinated set of investments” in sidewalks, traffic signals, bus stops, transit centers, bike lanes and park-and-ride facilities. Many of Nashville’s neighborhoods outside the downtown core currently lack sidewalks altogether.

    The plan would increase bus frequencies and add new routes, linking some outlying neighborhoods together, whereas currently all bus lines terminate downtown. Investing in new traffic signals, meanwhile, is an attempt to better manage traffic in and around the city, intended to benefit both drivers and transit riders.

    Notably, the plan does not include any investment in light rail — a stark departure from a previous plan backed by then-Mayor Megan Barry. She called for a $5 billion public-transit development, with five new light rail lines and a tunnel beneath downtown Nashville. Voters overwhelmingly rejected the proposal in 2018, shortly after Barry resigned from office.

    The exclusion of light rail from O'Connell's plan has generated both disappointment and relief among transit advocates. “I love rail,” says Eric Hoke, a Nashville-based designer who campaigned for the last transit referendum in 2018. “But I’m kind of glad that’s not on the table, just to avoid the distracting discussion we had around rail last time.”

    Betting on Buses

    In 2018, the $5 billion price tag for Barry’s plan — and the surprise cost of building a tunnel downtown — gave people sticker shock, Hoke says. There were also doubts that Nashville had the right pockets of residential density to support lots of new high-frequency rail service.

    The projected cost of O'Connell’s plan is substantially lower than the last one. Hoke says the city has gotten more comfortable with big numbers after a debate about the Tennessee Titans' new stadium, a $2.1 billion project that is being largely financed with public money. “A whole transit plan for $3 billion seems like a good deal in that context,” he says.

    Jessica Dauphin, president and CEO of the Transit Alliance of Middle Tennessee, says she’s encountered some disappointment about the lack of new rail infrastructure in the plan. But she argues “there’s a certain romanticization of what light rail is,” and notes that high-frequency bus rapid transit, on dedicated lanes, can perform much the same way as a train.

    O'Connell’s plan calls for a network of “all-access corridors” with high-frequency bus service on a number of pikes that carry people in and out of downtown Nashville. It calls for transit-only lanes in some instances, but O'Connell acknowledges that even that is an uncertain political prospect. “We can’t realistically pre-promise the idea of dedicated right of way at any point, but we can definitely promise complete streets implementation on those corridors,” he says.

    Proposed bus service improvements, including better frequencies and 24/7 service on some key routes, could open up the local creative and hospitality economies to many more people, says Dauphin. Every component of the plan supports the others, she says, for example with better pedestrian and biking infrastructure linking people to improved transit service.

    The plan also envisions new housing development in transit-adjacent areas, both to support ridership and give residents places to live with lower transportation costs. “Each part of the plan really relies on the other parts in order for it to be a complete, holistic, transformative transportation network update,” Dauphin says.

    Nashville’s ambitions have changed since 2018, O'Connell says. Amid a crisis of housing affordability, he hopes investing in the transportation network can help the city strike “the perfect balance between cost of living and quality of life.” He hopes voters will appreciate the modesty of his plan and its focus on executing basic improvements.

    “We really have focused the overall program design on ensuring that all users of the public right of way should experience some benefit,” he says.
    Jared Brey is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @jaredbrey.
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