Navigating Nashville’s Growth: Can a New Mayor Sell the City on Transit?
Freddie O’Connell, the new mayor, is a longtime transit advocate and civic leader. Nashville voters have rejected transit referendums in the past, but he's convinced the city needs to try again
In big cities, growth is either the problem or the solution, depending on who you ask. Some residents aspire to join the ranks of even-bigger cities, with all the emblems of success: taller buildings, lusher parks, smarter restaurants and flashier trains. Others want the opposite — to be unlike other cities and somehow manage to avoid unaffordability, crime, homelessness, congestion and runaway development. Sometimes the same people want both things.
This debate about bigness is especially loud in Nashville, one of the boom cities of the past decade. Residents are split over their ultimate ambitions for their city, but at this point most are united by a sense that the city’s growth is a little bit out of control. It’s been 11 years since The New York Times christened Nashville the “it” city of America. But the phrase is still on many people’s tongues, uttered with a weird mix of mortification, derision and genuine pride. Nashvillians are proud of the city’s growth and the fact that so many people who live somewhere else want to move there. But they’re also annoyed by newcomers and tourists, while somewhat terrified of their power to redefine the city’s identity.
A half-decade of political instability has reflected those feelings. Nashville has had only 10 mayors since its modern government was formed in 1963 — but half of them have served just in the last decade. Since the 2018 resignation of Mayor Megan Barry, who left office amid scandal halfway into her first term, the city has operated in a kind of political limbo. Barry’s vice mayor, David Briley, led the government for just 18 months. Briley’s successor, John Cooper, took over during a period of fiscal instability and spent much of his term managing the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Cooper opted not to run last year for a second term.
All that makes Freddie O’Connell, a former Metro Council member who was elected last September, arguably the first mayor in at least half a decade to have a meaningful claim on the city’s future. He is starting his term at a moment when the challenges that have plagued Nashville for years, notably the high cost of living and inadequate transportation infrastructure, have reached what many city-dwellers believe to be a crisis point.
Many Nashvillians complain about worsening traffic, a lack of public transit options and flaws with even basic infrastructure such as sidewalks in many parts of the city. O’Connell promised during his campaign to make all those things better. The rallying cry of his campaign was, “I want you to stay.”
O’Connell is spending a lot of his early political capital on public transit. The mayor plans to revive efforts to generate new, dedicated funding for transit. That’s a tall order. A referendum that included plans for five new light rail lines was crushed by voters in 2018, shortly after Barry resigned. It wasn’t the first time Nashville voters rejected the idea of paying more taxes to fund transit. Undaunted, O’Connell has vowed to bring the question to voters yet again, as soon as this year. He plans to build the next campaign around steady improvements to transit infrastructure, rather than “shiny objects.”
“I am resolute that we’re not going to do anything that would have the word ‘boondoggle’ associated with it,” O’Connell said one morning in December, between bites of a cream-filled donut at a small bakery a few blocks from City Hall. “I think Nashville might have actually had its fill of ‘go big’ for a little bit.”
A Boomerang Resident and Transit Advocate
O’Connell, 47, is the type of politician that other politicians describe as “wonky.” He speaks lucidly on all kinds of topics. A prodigal son of Nashville, he went to college at Brown University in Rhode Island and returned for a job in the tech industry at the tail end of the early 2000s dot-com boom. He lived in Nashville without a car for three-and-a-half years, relying on buses to get around town.
For a city of Nashville’s size, the transit system is limited, designed in an antiquated hub-and-spoke model, with virtually all the bus lines terminating downtown. It’s marked in many places by a lack of infrastructure — no sidewalks, let alone bus shelters. “I used to hop off [the bus] into a ditch that was frequently a puddle,” O’Connell says. When he did buy a car, it was a Chevy El Camino, powered by biodiesel, that had been previously owned by the film actor Daryl Hannah. He sold it in an online auction in 2012 after his daughter, the first of two, was born.
O’Connell is a longtime transit advocate, formerly the president of the advocacy group Walk Bike Nashville and the board chair for the Nashville Metropolitan Transit Authority (now part of WeGo Public Transit). He was elected to the Metro Council in 2015, representing parts of downtown Nashville as one of 40 members on the consolidated city-county governing body. Identified as a progressive Democrat, he voted against a plan, which was ultimately approved, to build a new stadium for the Tennessee Titans with more than $1.2 billion in public funding.
While serving on the council, O’Connell focused on quality-of-life issues in downtown Nashville, pushing regulations on party buses and short-term rentals in a city that’s known as the bachelorette party capital of the world. He once rented a truck and began doing recycling pickups himself after the city suspended collections.
He has a reputation as a good listener, even among people who oppose many of his policies. “We don’t agree on much politically,” says Justin Owen, president of the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free-market think tank. “We’re certainly at opposite ends of the spectrum. But we have a very open dialogue, and that’s a good starting point.”
O’Connell is known to be accessible. He seems to say yes to every media request. He appears at public events all over town. He deejayed a hip-hop set on New Year's Eve. In Nashville political circles, everyone jokes that their closest contact in the mayor’s office is the mayor himself, says Erin Hafkenschiel, president of the advocacy group ThinkTennessee and a former director of transportation and mobility under Mayors Barry and Briley.
She says the mayor has welcomed her as one of the city’s many transplants. “I’m from Northern California, and most people are like, ‘Don’t ever tell people you’re not from here. Keep it a secret,’” Hafkenschiel says. “Freddie never felt that way. He was like, ‘You’re bringing experience and expertise and best practices from other places and that’s so important.’ He was probably the first person to say that to me.”
Overstressed, Underbuilt Infrastructure
Nashville’s trajectory has been defined by its rapid growth — an 81 percent increase in the metro population since 1990, with more than 200,000 new residents in the city proper during that time. New residents, on average, are substantially wealthier than longer-term Nashvillians. That has created all kinds of pressure in local communities. It’s pushed some residents out of the center of town, led others to leave the city altogether and, in combination with the tourism economy spilling out of downtown, eroded neighborhood quality of life.
Nashville leaders have been struggling to win transportation improvements for more than a decade. The transit system is small, carrying about 30,000 riders a day — a fraction of the ridership in Pittsburgh, a city with under half the population. Barry’s predecessor as mayor, Karl Dean, hoped to build a seven-mile bus rapid transit project called the Amp, but eventually abandoned the project, facing opposition from conservative groups and lawmakers and split opinions in the neighborhoods.
After that effort failed, WeGo Public Transit, the agency that combines both the metropolitan and regional transit agencies, created a strategic plan called nMotion that called for a range of transit projects the city could pursue in anticipation of sustained population growth. Some recommendations have gradually been implemented over the years.
But the biggest upgrades in the plan call for creating high-capacity corridors on several of the arterial roads carrying cars in and out of downtown Nashville, including Gallatin and Murfreesboro Pikes. Those are fast-moving, multilane roads today, with sidewalks that disappear and reappear at random, with hardly a shoulder for cabs or buses to pull over in many places.
Meanwhile, downtown Nashville is still prone to traffic jams. “On Saturday nights it can take sometimes half an hour or 40 minutes to get from here to the other side of downtown,” said Stephen Bland, WeGo’s CEO, sitting in a conference room at the downtown transit center, a few blocks from the honky-tonks of Lower Broadway. The route to the airport gets so clogged at times — especially during Sunday morning “bachelorette rush hour,” Bland says — that travelers have been known to get out of their Ubers and Lyfts on Interstate 40 and walk the rest of the way.
Addressing those kinds of challenges requires big investments and dedicated funding, something WeGo doesn’t have. “We can’t go to the federal government and say ‘Hey, will you give us $300 million for a bus rapid transit project? We’ll come up with the local money, trust us,’” Bland says. “Meanwhile, Denver, Austin — everybody else is going in and saying, ‘We know this money is coming in. We have the source.’”
Breach of Trust
Megan Barry campaigned on improvements to public transit, making it her main focus after being elected mayor in 2015. “Transit, transit, transit,” were the administration’s top three priorities, she said in 2017, while unveiling a $5 billion plan to transform the city. Her package called for 26 miles of light rail along five corridors and a billion-dollar tunnel beneath downtown Nashville.
The scale of the proposal was thrilling to transit advocates. Barry, who was wildly popular at the time, planned to pay for it with a sales tax increase that required voter approval. Many of the projects in the proposal came straight out of the nMotion plan, but some of it, especially the tunnel, took people by surprise, raising concerns about cost and construction disruptions. O’Connell, then a Metro Council member, was a vocal backer of the proposal, but says he had reservations. “I expected at the outset I would be a full-throated champion of it, and instead I became someone who chose something over nothing,” O’Connell says.
The plan had high-profile opponents, including the Beacon Center and the Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity Foundation. From the beginning, there were cracks in what one local opponent calls “the pro-choo choo train coalition.” Barry’s administration was criticized for being too insular during the planning process, as well as for moving too quickly to put the plan to a vote — and for ignoring the needs of existing transit users and Black Nashvillians.
There were lots of reasons why voters eventually rejected the plan, in May 2018, by a margin of 2 to 1. The biggest, says O’Connell, was the revelation that Barry had been having an affair with her bodyguard, which involved business trips paid for by the city, and her subsequent resignation.
“The single greatest thing — you could feel it viscerally on the ground — was the breach of trust in local government after we watched the quarterback come off the field,” O’Connell says. “When Mayor Barry was no longer there as a popular, charismatic mayor who was ambitious to get this done, there was no Plan B.”
A More Sober Approach
O’Connell has vowed to take a more sober approach to the next transit plan. He says it should prioritize pedestrian and bike infrastructure, including building out basics like sidewalks, while also creating new high-capacity bus corridors, with transit-only lanes and signal priority on big regional arterials.
Aside from the city’s longtime resistance to transit referenda, O’Connell faces big hurdles right out of the gate, both legal and political. He wants citizens to vote this year, believing that big turnout during a presidential election will give them a more meaningful say. His administration is scrambling to see whether that’s legally possible.
Then there are the political challenges. The mayor knows he has to put together a plan that will excite voters. No such plan has yet been formalized. O’Connell wants it to prioritize the needs of existing transit users, while also appealing to non-riders. That’s a tough needle to thread, and a dynamic that has bedeviled other big-city transit referendums. It’s likely to include some of the projects in the nMotion plan, but it probably won’t include light rail, O’Connell says. “We don’t need a major capital thing that tears up a major corridor and causes worse traffic for any period of time,” he says. “This is [about] the restoration of confidence that we can do big things and do them well.”
A core of transit advocates is sure to support the referendum no matter what it looks like. It’s sure to have detractors too. And a tense relationship with the state could destabilize any mayor’s agenda. City Hall and the state Capitol are only a few blocks apart, but they represent dramatically different visions for governance. The city and the state, which is thoroughly dominated by Republicans, occasionally break into open animosity — sometimes over big questions including gun control, other times over petty culture-war issues.
Last year, legislators attempted to take over the airport authority and cut the Metro Council in half — revenge for the council balking at hosting the 2024 Republican National Convention. Both measures were blocked in court. A few years ago, the Metro Council renamed a portion of a downtown street where the state Legislature has offices for the late civil rights leader John Lewis. The state Legislature later renamed a portion of a street with city offices after former President Ronald Reagan.
O’Connell says he expects that the Americans for Prosperity Foundation will be back to oppose the next referendum. But he’s confident Nashvillians of every political stripe are eager to support transportation improvement. That is, as long as they believe it will work.
“I don’t really care about how you affiliate or understand your own politics as much as, is this a good idea and are we delivering it at a reasonable cost?” O’Connell says. “What we’re going to work on for this entire term is restoring confidence in basic city services.”
Note: This article was updated to reflect the length of time that O'Connell lived in Nashville without a car.