If Nashville’s transit referendum is approved, it’s clear what would happen next — expanded bus service and planning for light rail. But there’s more uncertainty about the city’s next steps if the referendum fails on May 1.
For starters, the Metro Transit Authority won’t grind to a halt. It’ll continue with its current funding amount, which in recent years has included some increases to allow for incremental changes to the bus system.
“If the referendum fails, you won’t see a large change in what I’ll call the ‘quantity’ of transit service you have,” said Steve Bland, executive director of the MTA.
And changes that are already approved will go ahead. The MTA will still increase frequency on a few routes, renovate its downtown bus station, add new vehicles into the fleet and launch a new payment system with reusable cards.
The bigger question is whether Nashville would create another plan as ambitious as what’s in front of voters now — the multi-billion-dollar “Let’s Move Nashville” plan, which suggests a mix of tax increases, loans, and grants to pay for an expansion of bus service and five new light rail lines, among other changes, through 2032.
Bland, other Metro officials, and pro-transit prognosticators suggest another referendum would take at least 4 years.
That estimate is based partly on uncertainty about who will be Nashville’s mayor, and the time it could take to make another plan and to hold community meetings like the ones involved in the current effort. Officials also point to other cities that voted “no” on dedicated funding for transit — Atlanta, Austin, and Seattle — and that needed years to bring another plan to voters.
Another transit backer, Ralph Schulz, president of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, released a lengthy statement expressing fears about what would happen while the city gathers a new plan.
“It will be 6-10 years before Nashville gets to start work on a new transit plan. And by then, the damage to our community and quality of life will have started,” Schulz wrote.
But opponents of the referendum say less-expensive improvements could come much sooner, depending on the funding strategy.
“You cannot make a very good decision when you feel like you have a gun to your head,” said jeff obafemi carr, an advisor for referendum opponent No Tax For Tracks. “When you have leadership saying that a city is going to fail, and taking a hopeless doom and gloom approach to fixing a problem, that is equivalent of holding a gun to a city’s head.”
He said a different plan could incorporate the concerns that have arisen in the lead-up to this vote, with the goal of making a plan that he considers more flexible and affordable.