Okay, I thought the vote would be closer than what we got. I was not expecting a victory for transit, but geez…
Once upon a time I was a card-carrying, hyphen-loving non-shill for local business-oriented types. I'm still friendly with that crowd (but more friendly with the free thinkers trying to overthrow the patriarchy...don't tell them!) Here's what one of them told me before the vote: there is too much money on the table, and too much competition from Williamson County and outside Tennessee, to ultimately let this fail.
Private sector backers have extensive plans on the board that they have spent real money on...all they need is the green light on a real 24/7 mass transit plan that works. The referendum vote map says a lot, but it's more complicated than at first glance. Much of it really is New Nashville versus Old Nashville, folks getting the train versus folks who won't...and yeah, the traditional African-American neighborhoods rightly feel left out of this as currently designed.
May I offer a no-punches-pulled outline of what may be in the cards? Please remember that I am a recovering Canadian-style conservative. When I'm writing about anything involving finance, I tend to put head before heart and turn off my soul. These are my guesses only here, with some input from scuttlebutt and past experience.
More buses will be the first step, but if we are going to maintain long-term growth without a stall, you are going to have to move people around at speed without gridlock. If big business goes bananas when school buses are late, you can imagine how they will feel once we go deeper into congestion central. The best solution? You guessed it: light rail pretty much countywide.
If you can stick it mostly underground fairly cheaply, go for it. If not...make it functional and reasonably unobtrusive to automobile traffic. Where to lay out the tracks? I'd say the current main arteries. Atlanta's system pretty much follows the interstates...the closer to downtown, the more you can deviate from that path.
What about that West End Avenue, Belle Meade kerfuffle a few years back that pretty much crushed all transit plans toward Bellevue and parts west? You put that part of light rail under West End Avenue and a good chunk of the highway beside Belle Meade, and that solves a lot of it.
This forbidden zone will likely ease up once a certain generation or two dies off, but don't ever expect that part of town to either use, or be happy paying for transit in some capacity. Yup, you bet they are going to tie this up in court for as long as possible, and there will be very few stops located around there.
Transit is a cultural game-changer that works for progressive people like us, but we are not the majority here...yet. The referendum map is pretty clear - young people living closer to downtown want mass transit. Now begins the demographic waiting game.
How much would it cost? A lot...much more than the five-plus billion estimated for the defeated proposal. Would people use it? Yes, if it travels to and from where the overwhelming majority are traveling. How do you know where they are going to go? You build the high density transit corridors first (you know, the ones on the books that the private sector has spent big bucks planning for)
How do you pay for it? Nashville’s property tax rates are at historic lows (take a wild guess here…) There would likely have to be significant financial backing outside of Davidson County too.
What about those self-driving cars and other non-mass transit solutions supposedly coming down the pike? The problem is if you build it, they will come...from everywhere.
Environmental concerns aside: even if you lay down 20 lanes of asphalt in the four directions for all that, cars and trucks from far outside Nashville will soon jam those lanes up most hours of the day because of Nashville’s strategic location (the one that helps make us an “it” city.) There are laws on the books from the railroad days that prevent cities from blocking out-of-area traffic using our roads (that's been tried already) More roads means traffic gridlock stays mostly the same.
Why would the state want competition for current fuel tax revenues (a big source of income to fix and build roads) if Plan Bravo is executed? They wouldn't...be prepared for a decent-size tax on transit fares that's roughly the same as the current fuel tax in return for some sort of regional funding or support. That tax will likely destroy any attempt to give discounted fares to folks below certain income levels.
If we choose to build Plan Bravo, do we have to do it alone? No. The state and neighboring counties would be more likely to help finance it, in my opinion. For the state, more jobs means a better economy and more satisfied (likely conservative-leaning) voters. State pressure and the knowledge that Nashville will really build a mass transit system will force the hand of its neighbors to link up. They will not do so until Nashville has a superior weapon to compete with them for tax-paying residents.
What are the two likely scenarios that gets us to Plan Bravo?
- Someone big and Amazon-ish is going to have to step up and say they want it, and will *encourage* their thousands of new, locally hired employees to use it. You know...a big campus full of LEED-certified buildings with greenways, espresso bars and zero parking. State government, colleges and larger private employers are candidates here for established businesses doing the same
- One of these days, the Titans will begin knocking on Metro's door for a stadium improvement...and there has been talk of a spiffy domed one somewhere in (drum roll!) North Nashville that could be retractable and house CMA type events too. There is your excuse to build light rail in that direction (blame the Titans!) Under this scenario, you could also kiss Metro General Hospital goodbye (please refer to the “turn soul off” reference above) It's probably time to game plan how to move forward on that issue...a light rail link connecting to more jobs is likely a good political compromise for shutting it down. (Personally, I don't have a grudge against Metro General, but it has been bleeding red ink since I left college)
All that said: the lesson to be learned here is that you need to build up the infrastructure before you can build out the infrastructure. You need sidewalks and safe neighborhoods, built corridors before you build tracks...and that gives a reason for transit to go there. This would involve a good deal of risk for the private sector concerns who want transit to straddle their developments, but the taxpayers would be on the hook for funding that transit too...you go first.
Something is going to happen probably more sooner than later. A former mayor and governor named Phil Bredesen once said that you are either growing or dying as a city...and I doubt anyone here really wants to see Nashville go back to the 1990’s. The logical next step is a truly countywide 24/7 mass transit system of some sort that really works.
For all those disappointed out there: many of us oldsters well remember the days before Nashville was an it city. We have come a long way in a short time so keep your chins up. The vote was a setback...but that's all. They were secretly floating mass transit alongside new convention centers and arenas when I worked at 1100 Broadway. I saw the drawings then. We didn't think those would happen in our lifetimes either.
There will be another vote down the road, I imagine more sooner than later. Let this be a lesson for us this August and November. If you want it, you have to fight for it, support those who support it, and run for office if you can to push it.
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Back to work.
Julie Chase is the pen name for a local trans woman and Out&About Nashville columnist.