Nashvillians debate Transit Plan for the “It” City

Kia Jarmon

A huge debate is raging in the Greater Nashville Metro community. There has been proposed a plan to address Nashville’s transit situation that would cost billions of dollars and take years to implement and fund. People are divided in their opinions about the efficacy and impact of the plan, as well as the ultimate cost and financial impact on individuals, families and visitors.

The “It” City has the challenge of managing growth, while affording opportunities for residents and others to get around town effectively. Many are concerned that the plan will not really reduce traffic problems, nor alleviate traffic congestion, but will ultimately waste billions of dollars while producing few, if any, improvements for most segments of travelers in and around the city.

In an age when many see self-driving cars, Uber and Lyft ride-sharing services, and light rail as desirable alternatives to traditional personal cars and trucks as their primary modality of transportation, issues of personal freedom and cost burdens rise as major concerns. While there are many younger people who have grown up or moved in to Nashville from cities where public transportation is more widely used than personal cars, lots of folks are not eager to pay to fund changes in transit that they will not be using, and that may not improve their access or their ability to get around.

Traditionally, Nashville vehicular traffic has bottle-necked in many high-trafficked areas around major rush hours in the mornings and afternoons. The Interstate highways, I-24, I-40, I-65 and I-440, as well as Briley and Ellington Parkways, were built decades ago and simply can’t handle the volume of traffic that routinely attempts to use them to get where they are going. They were simply designed and built with too few lanes for the number of vehicles that traverse them at peak times; and in the case of I-440 built out of inferior concrete material that is crumbling.

In the city, on major streets, this same issue proves problematic, as well. At present, there is mounting frustration due to congestion most recently extremely exacerbated by the explosion of construction all around town. So, a plan has been laid out that seems to address the traffic situation in Nashville going forward. This article is intended to review opinions and observations by some of the proponents and opponents of the plan.

The Nashville Transit Plan, formally labeled Let’s Move Nashville: Metro’s Transportation Solution, itself objectively calls for increased bus service with more frequent and improved local routes, four rapid bus lines, construction of five light rail lines, a downtown tunnel, and the establishment of 19 neighborhood ‘transit centers’ around the county over the next fifteen years or so, with completion of the plan’s system targeted for 2032.

Transit For Nashville says they are a coalition of businesses, community groups and transit supporters who are putting an end to the gridlock. Among their members and other public supporters of the Transit Plan are Kia Jarmon, Ashley Northington, and Walter Searcy, among others. The Transit For Nashville official position is “Job growth. More sidewalks. Community advancement. Connecting neighborhood to neighborhood. This is the vision we have for Nashville. This vision is about more than transit – it’s about our future.” They say, “It’s time to get started. Nashville is growing by almost 100 people every day. To be prepared for the future, we have to invest in a transportation system that relieves traffic congestion, connects our neighborhoods, and increases access for all Nashvillians, whether they’re new arrivals or those who have spent their entire lives here.”

Supporters note that among the features outlined in the 55-page plan for bus services are free and reduced fares for the elderly and impoverished, more access ride availability, increased route coverage and extended hours.

Opposition to the plan has grown along with support for it. Several groups, including No Tax 4 Tracks led by Jeff Eller and Better Transit 4 Nashville led by Jim Harwell and Jennifer Miller have emerged to seek to ‘derail’ the plan. Also working against the plan is former StopAMP.org Chairman Rick Williams and his group No Nashville Transit Tax, Inc.

Among those publicly opposed to the plan are Jennifer Miller and jeff obafemi carr. They say that public monies were (mis)used to hire public relations firms and fund public advocacy for the plan that they say will only help 1% of the population but burden the majority with a $9 BILLION cost. Their estimates say the plan will cost the average Nashville household $43,608 in increased taxes, with the city having a 10.25% sales tax, which they say is the highest sales tax of any major city in the country.

Rev. jeff obafemi carr has long been identified with activist causes, and he is ardent in his opposition to the Plan, serving as Senior Advisor and Director of Diversity and Inclusion for No Tax 4 Tracks.

“I have always taken a stand for what benefits the people of the city I grew up in, and doesn’t overburden the grassroots people who work hard for a living every day in our city,” says carr. “I am excited to be a part of the progressive, diverse, and widespread sentiment that the NoTax4Trax Coalition is capturing: that this specific referendum is not the answer we’ve all been seeking to solve our transit problem. Nashville deserves better….  I spend a lot of time in various underserved communities—places where people are being forced out of their homes from gentrification and losing access to affordable housing and healthcare—and the consensus is that this particular plan burdens those who are struggling with extra taxes that they will see no immediate benefit from.”

Rev jeff obafemi carr

According to No Tax 4 Tracks, “Traffic congestion in Nashville needs a solution. Nashville’s transit plan should be forward looking, incorporate future technologies, and be more affordable for business and Nashville-Davidson County citizens. The plan on the May 1st ballot is neither. That plan will raise our sales tax to the HIGHEST in the US in any major city – 10.25 percent. The projected total cost of the plan is $9 BILLION and highly likely to go over budget. Despite the cost, the plan does NOT fix congestion where it’s needed.”

“Cities with mass transit have elected regional transportation boards,” states the Better Transit 4 Nashville website. “Nashville needs a regional transportation board with authority separate from Metro government. Nashville’s current transportation leadership structure is flawed, which is one of the main reasons this current transit plan is clearly & obviously wrong & dangerous for the city & region. It was created by leaders in a structure in which there is no real accountability to the taxpayers (i.e. they are not elected).”

Their Solution: “Other cities with mass transit have a regional transportation board with the power to: 1) create transit plans; 2) present a public referendum to the entire region with, for example, added tax to pay for the transit system; and, 3) that is elected. In Nashville, the “regional transport. authority ” (RTA) consists of: people appointed by the Governor; mayors from counties outside of Davidson Co.; and the Nashville mayor. They are not elected.” Their Proposal: “Better Transit calls for Nashville/Middle Tenn. to have a regional transportation board that is elected.”

Better Transit 4 Nashville offers five basic main reasons they oppose the plan:

1.) The plan is not regional & does not address the main traffic issue: the masses of people traveling in & out of Nashville daily. The plan is only city. Any mass transit plan has to be regional.

2.) Light rail does not increase transit ridership or reduce traffic congestion. Transit ridership is 2% today. At best case projections, with light rail (LRT), the rate may go to 2.5% but likely will decrease. Light rail – obsolete now – will be completely, totally obsolete in 14 years, the build out period.

3.) The catastrophic cost: $9 billion: $568,000 per current rider. The light rail portion is $6+ billion, for an obsolete, inflexible transit dinosaur & tunnel that ruins the bus system, eliminates half the lanes on five (5) primary state/city roadways and bankrupts our city. Four new taxes are added, including sales tax increase, causing Nashville to have the highest sales tax in the nation. Cost per rider: $8.9B / 15,650 current riders = $568,000 per rider.

4.) The plan does not include anything related to technology, the driving force in traffic for the future. The plan was created by Megan Barry, the MTA bus agency & a small of group of small-town mayors WHO DO NOT LIVE IN DAVIDSON CO.

5.) The plan hurts the working class & poor the most. NOAH Nashville & PATHE Nashville, two inner city groups advocating for transit & more, are against this transit plan.

Metro Nashville residents vote on whether or not to implement the Plan during Early Voting from April 11 – 26 and on Election Day May 1. Make your choice, and vote.