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Why Traffic-Choked Nashville Said ‘No Thanks’ to Public Transit

Nashville is growing. It’s gridlocked. Car commuters in the Grand Ole Stopry spend an average of 33 hours a year stuck in traffic. And its voters just shot down a $5.2 billion transit improvement plan.

Supporters of the referendum—including the mayor, the local Metropolitan Transit Authority, and various pro-transit groups—billed it as a necessary fix if the city is to continue growing without becoming ever more clogged, rein in hazardous emissions, and make it easier for everyone, including those who can't drive, to get around.

A yes vote would have given Nashville and its surrounding metropolitan area 26 miles of light rail, four new rapid bus lines, four crosstown bus lines, improved service on existing buses, 19 transit centers, and a suite of improvements to signals, sidewalks, and bike infrastructure. But last week, voters in Davidson County, which includes Music City USA and its environs, said 'heck naw.' By a nearly 2-to-1 margin.

Opponents of the plan focused on the not-insignificant tax increases, much of which would pay for a light rail system that wouldn’t serve all of the county’s sprawling suburbs. Even worse, the plan wouldn’t ease traffic, at least not in the short term.

That makes sense, except for the fact that sprawling, car-dedicated cities dealing with growth and traffic are making the sorts of moves Nashville just rejected. In 2016 ballot initiatives, voters in Seattle, Indianapolis, and Los Angeles approved expensive transit upgrades in the hopes of dialing down congestion.

The real reason Nashville’s vote failed, then, might have less to do with what was offered and more with how it was framed. And it could provide a helpful lesson for other car-choked cities looking for air.

Red-Light District

In Nashville, like in most American cities that have spent the past six decades paving themselves into the same pickle, traffic is not just egregious—it is inescapable. Nashville’s plan would have offered an alternative to people who would gladly give up driving if there were another way to get around. Its opponents landed their best blow by arguing all these bus lines and light rail wouldn’t actually cut traffic for everyone who stayed behind the wheel. And they were likely right.

“We have a lot of experience showing you can throw billions into public transit, and for the most part it doesn’t put a dent into car trips,” says Robert Cervero, a transportation expert at UC Berkeley. Blame induced demand: Whatever slack is left from people abandoning their cars for transit is eventually taken up by new drivers, enticed by any empty capacity on the roads.

Nashville’s pro-transiteers knew this and tried to make the point. As for why it didn’t stick, one could point to the antitransit blitz funded by Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity, including messages like “Highest Sales Tax in the Nation AND It Won’t Fix Traffic.” Or maybe those people in the suburbs were just acting out of self-interest. “You can’t easily reverse 50 years of rapid, low-density development by laying track and tossing in a bunch of bus lines,” Cervero says.

Public transportation works best in dense corridors, where lots of people live, work, and spend money. That makes it an awkward fit for a sprawling place like Nashville. “Whenever you talk about transit, you get a lot of chicken and egg arguments,” says Jeff Wood, a San Francisco-based transportation consultant who writes the transit blog The Overhead Wire. “Like, ‘We don’t have the density, so let’s not build,’ or ‘Let’s build it so we get the density we want.’”

Perhaps Nashville should have paired its transit initiative with a complementary zoning plan, pushing for higher population density, with mixed residential and commercial spaces. It has worked elsewhere. “Cities like Copenhagen, Stockholm, and even Portland, Oregon, had an urban vision of high density while also investing in transit,” Cervero says.

Then again, it’s hard enough convincing voters to increase their taxes without asking them to curtail their living space too. And trying to do so yields another chicken and egg argument: Which one do you try to sell residents on first?

No Free Rides

Antitransit types’ favorite refrain goes a little something like this: “Trains and buses never pay for themselves.” Like a Hank Williams tune, it never gets old because it’s sort of true. In 2015, the Hamilton Project looked at the profitability (or lack thereof) of transit agencies across the country. New York City loses about a dollar for every ride it serves, making it among the most efficient. Seattle, which has about the same population as Nashville but greater density, loses about $4 per ride. Nashville’s proposed system wouldn’t have been much better, in all likelihood. The referendum called for $5.2 billion upfront—drawn from hotels, businesses, car rentals, and sales taxes—for construction. Ongoing operations would have increased the total cost to $9 billion by 2032.

That might look bad, but car infrastructure receives even more public welfare. Since 2008, Congress has transferred more than $140 billion from the general fund (i.e., taxes everyone pays) into Highway Trust Fund, which teeters on insolvency because the federal gas tax hasn’t increased since 1993. State and local governments are in the same pinch, drawing from general funds to pay for roads. A 2015 report from the Public Interest Research Group found the average US taxpayer contributes $1,100 a year to the nation’s driving habit. By comparison, if mass transit’s cost overruns were divvied up equally, everyone in the US would owe about $125 annually. The obvious problem here is that it takes a lot of verbage to explain why transit is actually a great value.

Also, enfranchised drivers might not be too sympathetic to an argument that tells them to pay more for gas if they want to spend less time in traffic.

Next Stop, 2022

Nashville could go four years before considering another mass transit referendum. Not only will residents spend that time with no new alternatives to congestion, but people mulling a move to Tennessee might change their tune. The city’s growth boom is already slowing down.

Or the next transit vote might not happen at all. Nashville is holding special elections on May 28 to select a new mayor (Megan Barry, who had supported the failed initiative, resigned in March after pleading guilty to felony theft.) Of the candidates, only one supported the transit plan. “In American politics, you don’t often get a lot of continuity between administrations,” Cervero says. That’s especially true for big, contentious projects like mass transit, whose political payoff usually comes long after its champion has reached the end of their four- or eight-year term. In this way, US politicians can be a lot like frustrated drivers: always looking for a fast lane.


Life in the Jungle

Read more: https://www.wired.com/story/nashville-transit-referendum-vote-plan/

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