3 Lessons from Nashville's Failed Transit Plan

Ethan Greene is a masters student of City and Regional Planning at the University of Memphis and a native Tennessean sharing today's article about Nashville's recent transit vote.

Yesterday, voters from across Nashville went to the polls to consider a transit plan that would make changes to the bus system and add light rail to the city’s public transit options. Yesterday, Nashvillians soundly rejected the proposal by an almost 2-1 margin.

As a native Tennessean, I’d been following my capital city’s plan closely and can say the result is unsurprising. Even the city’s beloved Nashville Predators were not safe from criticism. After the team released an ad in support of the transit plan, the blowback was immediate, and the sentiment was accurate of the voting population: this plan is absurd.

This has left city officials scrambling for their next move, one which Strong Towns routinely advocates for and that I believe offers the best approach to Nashville’s congestion: the incremental scaling of transit. Below are three issues Nashville’s initiative faced that are mitigated greatly by an incremental and fiscally mindful approach to transit.

1. If it needs a ballot to succeed, it’s probably too big.

Nashville’s transit plan went to the ballot. It isn’t because every decision the city makes has to be ratified by popular vote. It’s because the city was planning on raising a handful of taxes, including the sales tax, which is already the second highest in the country. The city needed to raise these taxes because the plan was to cost $5.4 billion initially, increasing to $9 billion after factoring in long-term and operating costs.

Included in that price is $3 billion in debt the city would assume. Strong Towns has warned against the illusion of short-term growth at the expense of long-term solvency, and it makes no difference if those liabilities are roads or rail. Bond payments would begin with 15 years of payment purely on debt and would not expect to pay down the debt of the initial investment until 2060.

Instead of investing in what it can’t afford, Nashville (and others like it) should grow their transit incrementally. 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. In the words of Strong Towns member and contributor Daniel Herriges, let’s take small bets on urban transportation. It’s worked before in Fort Collins, CO, and it can work for Nashville.

2. Show people that transit can work.

This incremental approach to transit has the added benefit of demonstrating that transit can work. Business owners often fear that the loss of parking or auto traffic equals the loss of customers. Some business owners worry that bus service might bring “the wrong kind of people.” Others may be concerned with the effect of more buses in traffic, or increased congestion if the bus is getting its own dedicated lane.

An incremental approach would allow the city to upgrade one bus line to BRT at a relatively low cost. The example could then be used to show the positive effect transit has on business and automobile congestion. It then becomes that much easier for the next addition or improvement the city plans to make. Or maybe it fails. If that’s the case, it sure is a good thing that it isn’t a $3 billion dollar failure.

3. Decreasing car use requires a culture change.

The final beneficial thing incrementalism can provide us — and where Nashville’s transit plan fell short — is a shift in auto-centric thinking. In most of what I call the “sprawling south,” everyone drives. Nashville ranks 19th in the country in congestion, third in the southeast only to Atlanta and Miami.

In many parts of the southeast, a bus system isn’t even a viable option. The services are slow, don’t connect to large portions of the population, and most services require a car anyway. According to a 2011 Brookings Institution study of transit access in the 100 largest metro areas, 3 of the 10 worst transit systems in the country are in Tennessee. 9 of the 10 are in the south. Driving a car is not only a preference over public transit, often it is a necessity.

Because of that, it leads opponents of public transit in Nashville to make claims like “more lanes of traffic on highways” is the solution to congestion, and that public transit is “unsafe,” both of which are demonstrably false.

All of this indicates a shift not only in the way we plan our transit, but by the way we think about it as well. Not as a second-rate alternative to a personal automobile, but, instead, as an efficient and clean way to transport a large number of people. Changing minds takes time and incrementalism provides that time in abundance.

In Nashville, as in the rest of the U.S., people really like the idea of big projects. Not only are big bets not ideal, sometimes they fail. When that happens, incremental growth presents itself as the viable alternative and the best route forward for strong towns and productive transit.

(Top photo source: Michael Rivera)

About the Author

Ethan A. Greene is a masters student of City and Regional Planning at the University of Memphis. He covers urban issues for Young Voices, and his work has appeared in Planetizen, Spiked!, and Nooga.com