At a recent mayoral forum, when candidates were asked how often they use public transit, all but one of them admitted to it being a rare occasion, if ever.
Nashvillians who have tried to use the bus system in their day-to-day lives are unlikely to hold it against them. Getting around in Nashville is hard. Not only is the city missing a reliable form of public transit, the roads are a mess, bike lanes are few and far between and pedestrian death rates continue to increase every year. A top 25 city in the country, Nashville remains the only one of those 25 cities without dedicated funding for transit, and it shows.
Nashville has a rocky history when it comes to trying to solve the problem.
The past decade has seen two major attempts at large transit overhauls fail, both of which were marred by controversy and powerful lobbying groups. The first came in 2011 when Mayor Karl Dean announced plans for The Amp, a bus rapid transit line. Following a fraught political battle between local powers and the state — along with lobbying from the Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity and the notorious local car dealer and Republican donor Lee Beaman — the plan died in 2015.
Two years later, Mayor Megan Barry proposed a plan for light rail and bus rapid transit with a $5.4 billion price tag. By this time, the funding structure for projects like this had been changed by the Improve Act that was signed into law by Gov. Bill Haslam in 2017. The legislation allowed local governments to take transit projects straight to the voters, rather than having to go through the state legislature. But following a successful counter-campaign by Beaman and a pile of dark money ads, along with Barry’s term being scandalously cut short, the referendum crashed and burned, with over 65 percent of Davidson County voters rejecting the plan.
That leaves Nashville in 2023 almost completely dependent on cars.
“It’s an inequitable economic system when we are assuming that anyone who wants to participate in this economic system has to buy a car up front,” says Jessica Dauphin, president and CEO of the Transit Alliance. Not only does better public transit make it easier to get around, it ties in with a number of other benefits—a healthier population due to people walking more, an increase in spaces that are important for community connection and it frees up money that people would typically need to spend on a car. In the case of one mayoral candidate’s oft-told story, riding the bus even allowed them to save up enough money to afford a home.
The Transit Alliance, a nonprofit that focuses on building support for transit funding, has been running community engagement meetings to gather information on what Nashvillians need, and Dauphin says the consensus is clear.
“It’s not easy to ride transit in Nashville,” she tells the Banner. Inconsistencies in the bus schedule require users to plan out their entire trip before setting foot outside their homes, and gaps in service make it either unusable or wildly inconvenient for those who need it most. Even the bus service between the city and the airport, which gets over 400,000 ride shares in and out every month, only comes around every 45 minutes.
Despite its shortcomings, MTA ridership has largely returned to its pre-pandemic numbers or surpassed them in spots. People are using public transit, and the support for a larger network seems to be there. But while citywide transit may be on the rise, the Regional Transit Authority ridership is at just 40 percent of what it was pre-pandemic. Changing lifestyles and work schedules have led to many people opting for the drive between Nashville and neighboring cities when commuting, leading to nearly constant congestion on the main interstates. Dauphin says the city needs to find a way to put a greater emphasis on mass regional transit.
“How are people utilizing regional bus transit services like the WeGo star, and how can we help support and facilitate that into greater numbers?” says Dauphin.
What has John Cooper’s administration done on transit?
The Cooper administration has largely continued on the status quo.
Coming off the back of Barry’s failed transit referendum, a large part of Cooper’s campaign was a $1.5 billion transit plan — less ambitious and exciting but he argued more attainable and what the city needed. Rather than require a referendum to get dedicated funding, his plan would use funding from grants to improve the bus system, fix sidewalks and bike lanes and make various other infrastructure improvements.
Of course, a plan is good and all, but when it came time to execute, things got difficult.
Cooper’s first full year in office was marred by tragedy. The city was struck by a nationwide pandemic, a fatal tornado and the Christmas Day bombing. On top of this, the federal and state grants the Cooper administration planned to put towards transit projects are typically very competitive, requiring local governments to spend money to get money. And without a dedicated funding source, Nashville’s ability to compete with peer cities is hindered.
That’s left Nashville the past four years with a handful of transit-related plans — the Nashville Next Plan, Connect Downtown and Vision Zero to name a few — but not enough funding to go around.
WeGo’s Better Bus plan has been able to secure some funding over Cooper’s term. This year’s budget not only fully funds WeGo’s baseline operational needs, but it also supplied a little less than half of what they asked for in capital improvement funds. But the Better Bus Plan is really just a starting point, getting the city’s bus services up to date and more in line with other peer cities. To really make a difference in the city’s transit challenges, the next term will require more ambition.
What could the next mayor do?
All signs point to a transit referendum.
Haslam’s Improve Act allows cities to choose from a few different taxes — sales tax, hotel tax and rental car tax to name a few — to fund transit projects. But in order to do so, the city must first present voters with a specific plan, showing what they want to fund and how much it will cost. When it comes down to it, the voters get the final say, and as we saw in 2018, while people may be excited about transit, it’s going to take a well-thought-out, carefully orchestrated plan to pass. That means people may need to be patient when it comes to light rail.
“I know it sounds fun and sexy out front to be able to hop on a light rail train, and it is fun, and it is quick,” says Dauphin. “But we have to keep in mind what our communities are willing to pay for this. This is not going to come free and it’s not going to be cheap.”
There are a lot of options for what a transit referendum could look like, ranging from light rail to something as simple as a dependable and fast bus service to the airport. It will be up to the next mayor to determine what the city is ready for, and what the voters are willing to fund.
On top of this, while Gov. Bill Lee’s transportation modernization act that passed this year aims to relieve traffic congestion on the interstates, it does little to address any form of mass transit. It will be on the next mayor’s shoulders to find a way to revitalize the regional transit authority, get ridership numbers up and relieve the highways.
If transit isn’t touched on in the first question of the many mayoral forums taking place this season, it’s usually touched on in the second. All candidates have brought up some sort of plan, some more concrete than others, and most of the candidates have acknowledged the need for an eventual transit referendum. Choosing the next mayor comes down to what voters want that referendum to look like.
On the record
We asked the eight mayoral candidates for their positions on two different areas of transit.
In 2018, over 65 percent of Nashville voters shot down a referendum to fund light rail. Do you think the city is ready for another referendum? If you become mayor, will you push for a transit referendum, and if so, what projects do you think a referendum needs to focus on?
Heidi Campbell: I think Nashvillians have been sitting in traffic long enough that their feelings might be different. Nashville needs a bolder long-term approach to transit. My administration will explore relocating the CSX-owned Radnor Yard rail facility near 100 Oaks to open up the city’s existing rail lines for commuter use — which has already been studied for feasibility and passed the test years ago — and will support light-rail connection from downtown to the airport. We should also look at advanced technology solutions like real-time automated traffic management, route redesignation, and utilizing waterways to provide additional capacity.
Jim Gingrich: Nashville is about to elect its fourth mayor in six years. During that time, we’ve had a property tax increase, a hotel tax increase, and handed a billionaire the largest subsidy in NFL history. It should be no surprise, Nashvillians don’t trust our leaders with their tax dollars. I have the track record and experience of managing a multi-billion dollar budget. As Mayor, I would first gain the trust of Nashvillians and their hard-earned dollars before asking them to vote on a referendum for transit. There are several actions we can immediately take to help with traffic and congestion:
- Increase the frequency of buses on our highest volume routes.
- Expand the number of transportation hubs.
- Upgrade our fleet and its maintenance.
- Ensure our roads are properly maintained and in good condition.
- Pilot rapid transit on Murfreesboro Pike including to and from the airport.
Sharon Hurt: I believe that if you do nothing, you get nothing. The 2018 plan was not perfect but it was better than what we currently have, which is nothing. We need public transit in Nashville because this is an equity issue preventing our residents from picking up groceries and going to doctor’s appointments. However, I think we need to work on our public transit infrastructure one bite at a time rather than through a sweeping referendum. I am interested in building bus-only lanes on Murfreesboro Pike and other piecemeal projects to begin building out Nashville’s public transit infrastructure. When people begin to see the progress in our public transit, and actually start using it and seeing how it benefits their life, I believe they will become less skeptical of it.
Freddie O’Connell: I believe that Nashville knows it’s time to build a transit system. And, I think securing dedicated funding for a transit system is imperative. But in order to pass a referendum we need two things. First, we need to go ahead and put our existing plans into action. As the former chair of Metro’s transit board, I have the experience to start fixing this system on day one. Implementing a frequent transit network that operates crosstown routes, extended hours, and is more technologically advanced will help improve existing riders’ experiences, and engage new users. We should also be looking at our WeGo Ride employer-sponsored transit program as a model to expand.
Second, we need a mayor we can trust, one that will advance transit in an equitable way. You’ll hear me say this a lot, but to approach projects with an equity lens means using the pothole method. We don’t pave the county north to south to fix our roads, we go where we are needed most. And our transit should too. We need to prioritize areas that are currently not accessible by transit and use data to inform expansions in high-use communities. We need to keep an eye on neighborhoods where gentrification is driving a lack of affordability and help residents use transit to save money.
Residents can also trust me with this issue because I’m a frequent transit rider. That lived experience is as important as my Metro experience when it comes to reenvisioning Nashville’s transportation options and explaining the importance of prioritizing this work. 2018 was a tumultuous year for our city’s leadership, but it started with polls showing strong support for the transit plan. That changed, and so did turnout. As mayor, I’ll offer the kind of transparent leadership that folks can trust when it comes to both basic issues and big-picture problems, like this one.
In terms of the projects we’d pursue with the referendum, we’ve seen successes in cities we see as both our peers and our competitors that we can emulate. Projects like bus rapid transit (trains on rubber wheels) have been effective ways to move forward. I think a light rail route connecting downtown to the airport would be heavily used and would hugely reduce interstate congestion. But the ultimate issue is building a 24/7/365 traditional bus system using a full network of community transit centers. This frequent transit network will be a key to long-term growth and affordability. And it’s the biggest missing piece of both livability and climate action.
Alice Rolli: For all the discussion of what the state is taking away from Metro, we were given the ability to levy dedicated transit funding — necessary to secure state and federal matching dollars — and we failed spectacularly in 2018 when we took a go-it-alone approach. Davidson County voters — and just as importantly voters from the surrounding counties — are absolutely ready to engage in a thoughtfully planned process that should culminate in a ballot referendum either in November 2024 or November 2026. As Mayor, I will absolutely support running a process that listens to residents and is transparent, clear, and regionally aligned. Without dedicated funding, we are not able to draw on federal and state dollars and we are putting our taxpayers at a disadvantage relative to other cities that are able to leverage those funds.
Vivian Wilhoite: I believe the next mayor must work with regional and federal partners to come up with a long-term strategic plan and then have a referendum after communicating the transit vision and plan with voters. I believe there will need to be a referendum, but Nashville cannot do this alone and the next Mayor must collaborate with other leaders regionally and federally.
Matt Wiltshire: Nashville’s current transit system isn’t working for far too many families. If Nashville is going to build a robust transit system, it will require a dedicated funding stream, which will require a referendum. I will work with the community to develop a transit proposal
based on previous plans and significant community input and engagement. In that process we’ll determine the right time to ask voters for their approval.
The good news is that we can begin to make progress on our transit infrastructure in
advance of a referendum. As Mayor, I will get to work immediately on creating a dedicated-lane mass transit between the airport and downtown along Murfreesboro Pike. Carrying approximately 4,000 people a day, the Murfreesboro Pike route boasts WeGo’s highest daily ridership, which means that a system on that corridor is well-positioned to receive 60 percent or more of funding from the federal government. The airport can pay for all of the infrastructure from the airport to the first transit stop. By leveraging outside funding sources, the city can manage our share of the cost without a referendum. Building a premium transit line here will pull traffic off the interstate and help build a culture of mass transit in Nashville. Most importantly, we will be able to build affordable housing at transit stops, so that folks who work downtown or at the airport can get to work without having to pay $40+ per day for parking.
Jeff Yarbro: The city needs another transit referendum but isn’t ready for it yet. Nashville can’t change its vision for transit every time it elects a new Mayor. Before setting a referendum, the next Mayor should ensure the plan reflects a durable coalition of the city more than any candidate’s particular vision. I would begin building that coalition on my first day in office, but it’s imperative to get the next referendum right.
Even before a referendum, I would hope Nashville can launch a dedicated lane, rapid transit system from downtown to the airport with reliably rapid connections to Rutherford County, which is the largest source of daily trips into and out of the city. Nashville needs to see we’re thinking regionally and capable of delivering high-quality transit before we take on a more ambitious plan.
We should potentially explore a referendum that provides more than one option for investment and service so that voters have a greater degree of knowledge of what they’re getting — and the capacity to choose between a rapid or incremental implementation.
While I don’t think any Mayor should be fixated on the design or even the mode of transit, I would envision Nashville’s long-term plan including (1) rapid transit along key corridors that operates largely free of traffic so that transit is a fast, reliable, affordable option; (2) regional connectivity of those transit options to surrounding counties, (3) development of community transit centers and more cross-town routes informed by data to reflect actual transportation patterns rather than sending more and more riders through an already-congested downtown; (4) development of a system strategy that will work to navigate both within and around downtown; and (5) a strategy for land use around transit centers and last-mile infrastructure that maximizes ease of access and ultimately ridership.
We don’t have to achieve all of our long-term goals in one fell swoop, but it’s past time to start making real progress.
While MTA ridership numbers have largely returned to pre-pandemic numbers, RTA numbers are still just 40 percent of what they once were. On top of this, traffic congestion leaves commuters from outside of the city stuck in traffic for hours every week. What will you do as mayor to improve regional transit?
Heidi Campbell: Nashville is way behind for a city our size in transit infrastructure. WeGo is doing a good job of expanding bus access along the main spokes of our wagon-wheel transit design, but lateral connectivity has been a challenge. My administration will work with WeGo to find solutions while we also work on improving multi-modal connectivity (because you can’t use transit if you can’t access it).
We have to improve multimodal connectivity so people can actually use regional transit, and we need to make sure that we are aware of the regional transit opportunities which already exist in the first place. We can’t pave our way out of this problem, and we need to take a fresh look at how we get people out of their cars and into reliable and safe forms of public transit. As a Senator I’ve passed legislation to have the Tennessee Advisory Committee on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR) study passenger rail opportunities in our state. But if we’re being honest, Nashville needs to move past just studying this issue, implement what we’ve learned, and aggressively get the ball rolling on projects that will move us toward useful transit and multi-modal connectivity.
GNRC’s Regional Transportation Plan serves as an excellent foundation for identifying and funding an initial plan. As mayor, I will establish a task force (inclusive of GNRC, CM-T, WeGo, Walk/Bike Nashville, and other community stakeholders) to expedite the process of prioritizing and installing multi-modal route connectivity in our city, while working towards regional solutions. The task force will have a clear directive to consider bold options — again, starting with moving Radnor Yard to Wilson County to clear out our train tracks for commuter rail to start as soon as possible — while also looking at longer-term, shorter-haul options like light rail transit (LRT) on major highway corridors and to the airport from downtown, and then more easily-scalable investments for the meantime like bus-on-shoulder operations along all of our major corridors. I currently serve on the Senate Transportation Committee, which just passed the largest transportation bill in the history of our state. With unprecedented state investment in infrastructure, now is the time for Nashville and Middle Tennessee to get moving.
Jim Gingrich: We must recognize that 90 percent of our population growth as a region in the past five years has been in the surrounding counties. We need a regional solution and that starts with strengthening relationships across the region as well as with the state. Together, we must work toward a solution and how to pay for that solution collectively, whether through a referendum or not. Importantly, a holistic strategy to our challenges is imperative. For example, our housing affordability crisis has forced many to live in neighboring counties and commute into Nashville.
Sharon Hurt: I am strongly interested in working with TDOT and NDOT to build dedicated regional transportation lanes on our highways. Regional commuters from the suburbs can purchase a pass card to use these lanes. The pass cards can be a source of revenue for the city and we can reduce congestion on our roads. I am also interested in expanding our commuter rail system — perhaps the money from the choice lanes can provide the money to do this. I am already talking to a national organization that specializes in eliminating traffic congestion to come to a consensus on how to resolve our traffic problem.
Freddie O’Connell: Every candidate will tell you that transit requires a regional approach, and they’re not wrong, but they’re also passing the buck a bit when they say that. If we want the region to use transit, we should build the best transit system we can out to the county line. I’ll get started on that on day one, using our existing budget. Building neighborhood transit centers, investing in equity, and creating crosstown transfers will help even those from outside the county to better navigate Nashville. And that’s key because the days of downtown as our sole job center are over but we’re still sending riders there before they can get where they really need to go. We also need to have a better approach to big events that the region participates in, and make sure we’re running more frequent routes during those occasions, advertising our park-and-rides, as well as revisiting special WeGo Star rides. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve introduced to transit that say it’s so much easier to use than they expected – so if they’ll take a train to see Taylor, we’ve got a chance at them using transit more often. That’s all day one work for me.
I would also reinvest in the mayors caucus, which was created to address this issue specifically. Their work helped pass the IMPROVE Act at the state level, and will certainly be necessary for this and other opportunities and challenges we face. This entity and the GNRC Transportation Coordinating Committee already work on transportation issues and engage with TDOT and federal departments on various pursuits. The GNRC also brings together IT Directors from throughout the region, and I would endeavor to involve these leaders in the conversation as well.
As a former board member of both Nashville MTA and Cumberland Region Tomorrow, I already have many existing regional relationships that will help us reconnect with the region starting on day one.
Alice Rolli: Long-term regional transit solutions will require dedicated transit funding. In the meantime, incremental improvements can be made with an expanded schedule for the STAR commuter train and identifying expansion for satellite park-n-ride and neighborhood bus centers that can serve to reduce car trips into the downtown core — whether originating in or out of the county. Where feasible, using technology (such as Adaptive Signal Control Technology) to improve traffic synchronization and flow can also alleviate some congestion — but the reality is that our infrastructure has not kept pace with our population growth and our region is in for a painful decade as we continue to invest in infrastructure to support our region’s rapid growth.
Vivian Wilhoite: First off, I think we have to recognize that work as we knew it has not returned since the pandemic. The RTA numbers may be low in part to people still working from home. As Mayor, I will work with our neighboring cities and counties to educate the public about the opportunities with RTA. We must also improve transit options to get to an RTA hub. And, we need a regional comprehensive solution to transit that brings local, state and federal dollars to the table.
Matt Wiltshire: Mayor Dean helped to create the Mayors’ Caucus with other mayors from around the region. This forum created the opportunity for representatives from around the Nashville area to come together to find opportunities to collaborate on addressing challenges that cross county lines — like traffic and pollution. Unfortunately, the Mayors’ Caucus has been neglected over the past several years. I will re-engage with the Mayors’ Caucus and work with surrounding communities as well as our partners at TDOT to determine the best ways to address the transportation challenges that we face as a region.
In addition, the city will fully re-engage with the Metropolitan Planning Organization to
ensure that Nashville’s needs are prioritized in future transportation funding.
Jeff Yarbro: Any transportation strategy for Davidson County must be a transportation strategy for the Middle Tennessee region. For the last nine years, I’ve been working both across the aisle and across the region to bolster financing and create structures to facilitate regional transportation. I worked with Rutherford County legislators in 2015-16 to design mechanisms that would allow for reliably rapid transit that crosses county lines. Earlier this year, I worked with the Lee Administration to ensure the Transportation Modernization Act would be utilized to support multimodal, regional transportation. Making a robust, regional transportation plan a reality will require new levels of partnership both with the State and with local leaders across the Middle Tennessee region, and I’m the only candidate in this race with a clear track record of building those precise partnerships to achieve progress on regional transportation.
Over the long term, we have to recognize that the viability of regional transit is largely dependent on making progress within Davidson County. Surrounding counties will not buy into a regional system if there’s no way to get around Nashville once a commuter arrives. Nor will we see an increase if those transit options are subject to the unpredictable delays and slow-downs of regular traffic.
Finally, our regional transportation and housing strategies are tied together. Right now, too many people in Middle Tennessee have to drive until they can afford a place to live, and that’s getting further and further every year. That takes dollars out of your pocket, time away from your family, and puts too much strain on our infrastructure. One reason we need greater density where there’s infrastructure and demand to support it is to design a region that needs fewer cars traveling fewer miles.
Disclosure: Matt Wiltshire has donated to the Nashville Banner. Financial supporters play no role in the Banner’s journalism.