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Let’s Move Nashville

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There are two more special elections tomorrow, for House seats in Florida, including a Republican leaning seat that, based on the typical D swing, might be a real pickup opportunity for Democrats. But there’s another election tomorrow that has much more significant consequences for progressive and environmental policy outcomes, but will likely receive little national attention. In my podcast with Rob a few weeks ago, I tried to make the case that the recent (since 2015, roughly) decline in transit ridership is something progressives should be freaking out about a lot more than they are. In that spirit, tomorrow’s vote on a light-rail centered major transit project in Nashville is an extremely important one.

It’s a minor miracle this is on the ballot at all, for starters. Most local transit projects require the support, approval, or at least permission of the state government, and Tennessee is no exception. Major props should go to former Mayor Barry for finagling a provision in a bill to raise the gas tax to pay for road repair that allows for counties to introduce local sales tax surcharges, by referendum, for transit improvements. (Kriston Capps discusses the politics behind it here.)

Note that I said “former Mayor.” Megan Barry had been seen as a rising star in the Democratic party, and this ambitious plan fit well with that narrative. Now, as the what should have been the centerpiece accomplishment of her first term as mayor is set to go to the voters, she’s out of office, having resigned after a scandal that led to a guilty plea for felony theft, related to overtime pay for the head of her security detail, with whom she was having an affair. It’s hard to say precisely what impact this has on the plan’s chances of passing. Barry was quite popular to the bitter end, and the vice mayor who took over upon her resignation, David Briley, is also strongly supportive of the plan. On the other hand, every other candidate running for Mayor opposes it. (The mayoral special election will take place later in May.)

As Steve Haroch discussed this weekend, the politics of this election have turned very weird and ugly. It will probably not come as a surprise to our readers that the Koch brothers have been pouring money into the no campaign. A leading “no” group, “Better Transit for Nashville”, managed to get an op-ed against the plan published in the Tennessean, ostensibly written by Matt Johnson, but were forced to admit that “Matt Johnson” (for whom they’d provided a bio and photo) didn’t actually exist; for some reason they thought the op-ed would be more persuasive from a real fake person than their organization. Then, in light of last week’s Waffle House shooting, they set out to prove their theory about their organization’s toxicity right by posting (then deleting) this:

As for the plan itself? The primary financing mechanism is a .5% sales tax, escalating to 1% in 2023. As with many cities, their state government forces them to choose between progressive plans funded by regressive taxes, or nothing at all. It will cost around 5 billion dollars in year-of expenditures, 9 billion with financing costs included. This is, to put it mildly, a nearly unprecedented commitment to public transit investment for a city of Nashville’s size. To get a sense of the transit situation in Nashville today (admittedly, this means more to me than to most of you): it’s almost identical to what Dayton has to offer. Both systems provide a little under 10 million rides per year, and about 32K average weekday. Dayton actually comes out on top in terms of efficiency (slightly more riders with about 12% less service hours and about 15% fewer people in the service area). Nashville seems to be trying more to build ridership on a few key corridors with frequent service and has more commuter only-expresses, while Dayton focuses more on all-day/evening/weekend coverage for most routes. But they’re close enough in most relevant ways (compare the 2016 agency profiles: Dayton Nashville). It’s difficult to describe how utterly unthinkable it is that anyone would propose anything like this in Dayton. One difference, of course, is that while Dayton is spinning its wheels in terms of population and growth, Nashville has grown considerably, and reasonably expects to continue to do so. So this is part of a deliberate choice about how to grow, and to incentivize growth in the city, rather than the sprawl-growth that most growing cities in the South are experiencing. I haven’t had a chance to pour over the details too closely, but at quick glance it looks sensible–four new light rail lines on major corridors that experience significant traffic, a fifth taking advantage of existing, underutilized freight track, a couple of well-designed BRT lines, a tunnel through downtown, and some other improvements to a multimodal frequent network that promised 20 hour a day service. The light rail lines are designed to be extended into a more regional system, should any surrounding counties decide they want to get in on the action, but as far as I can tell ensuring extendability isn’t done in a way that sacrifices better routing choices for the city itself.

There are lots of politicians in cities around this country that might support something like this, if they thought it makes political sense for them to do so. Tomorrow’s vote matters a great deal for Nashville, but it matters for the rest of the country, too. One way to staunch and reverse ridership decline on public transit, (the cities that bucked the trend the last few years–Seattle, Phoenix, Houston–have all launched out significant new service during that time). If you think climate change is a real problem, and we should be building a built environment that gives us a fighting chance of shifting to a lower carbon society, tomorrow’s vote in Nashville is a BFD.

If we have any Nashville-area readers, I’d love to hear some thoughts from the scene in comments.

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