Nashville’s next mayor will face a complicated and politically volatile question about the future of mass transit.
The vote earlier this month to reject a multi-billion-dollar plan built around light-rail and improved bus service has reopened the debate, so we asked them:
What are your transit priorities now that Nashville voters have rejected the transit plan?
All of the candidates have now shared their ideas with WPLN, and the most popular transit talking point among the candidates — mentioned by seven — is to tweak the bus system that’s already in place.
Yet specifics have been sparse, with no precise dollar figures cited. Generally, the candidates suggest that city buses could be operated more efficiently, and that new routes could be planned into new areas.
Mayor David Briley proposes bus service to “undeveloped” parts of town; Ralph Bristol suggested different route designs; Harold Love wants proper maintenance of buses to keep them on the streets; and Carol Swain said there is a problem with the current location of the downtown Music City Central.
Metro Councilwoman Erica Gilmore and state Rep. Harold Love differentiate themselves by going somewhat further and by keeping a future tax referendum in play.
Love suggested a revision to the taxing mechanism that was rejected on May 1. He said he did not like how an increased sales tax would have applied to groceries, so he’d like to carve out a way for groceries not to be included if the sales tax is changed later (a move that would require action by state lawmakers).
“There is also a conversation I think to be held about one of the taxes that was not used to consider funding, which is a tax on new development,” Love said. “It’s not about being punitive to developers … why can’t we have a conversation about including those who are bringing new development to the city — that’s been wonderful — about also participating and paying it forward?”
For her part, Gilmore suggests that a single leg of light rail, instead of five lines, may be the way to begin.
“The best leg I think that everyone can get around is just starting from downtown to the airport, which was a part of the transit plan,” she said.
Innovations Outside Of Metro
Other candidates steered away from public transit — toward ideas that aren’t fully controlled by the mayor or the Metro government.
Former Vanderbilt University professor Carol Swain, and Carlin Alford, an employee at a software company, said they want employers to help reduce congestion during rush hours.
“We could do more with workers staggering the start times of jobs,” Swain said.
“During peak times … remote working opportunities for some of our downtown businesses,” Alford said. “We could work with businesses to provide access to other locations downtown, co-locations for them, shared office facilities that are not necessarily downtown and let them migrate into downtown in off peak hours.”
The idea of staggered commuting is under study by Metro, with Seattle as one model.
Other candidates focus on individualized mobility options, like autonomous vehicles and ridesharing, in their transit discussions.
And a couple said they are still in study mode about transportation, and did not commit to specifics on transit.
QUESTION: What are your transit priorities now that Nashville voters have rejected the transit plan?
Carlin Alford: “My first priority would be to address the congestion. … I would reduce the number of buses that we have. If you only got less than 2 percent of the people using mass transit right now, how is adding more vehicles to an already congested roadway a solution? You'd have to convince more people to take mass transit, and we haven't done that. So if we haven't done that, reducing the number of buses could help reduce the congestion.”
David Briley: “We need to continue to make investments in transit so that we can provide an equitable opportunity for everybody in Nashville to get around, to do everything we can to prevent gridlock in our city. That’s going to mean expanding the bus service. … Right now, I’m just looking at the things we can do without a referendum.”
Ralph Bristol: “The congestion issue is going to be solved mainly by somebody other than city government or state government or national government. It’s going to be solved by an impending multi-trillion-dollar-a-year industry … autonomous vehicles and ride-sharing. … In the meantime, we need to improve our bus service.”
Julia Clark-Johnson: “If I were mayor, I would put that on the back-burner and table it for further amendment, and present to the public a change in the message that was sent out that caused that rejection.”
Erica Gilmore: “We want to do something that is equitable and fair, and something that the voters — not the voters but the residents of Nashville — have an appetite for. So definitely we want to ramp up the [bus rapid transit] in all areas.”
Albert Hacker: “There are a lot of other options that can be considered like micro transit, micro-busing systems [smaller buses that have short routes] that we can implement; ride-share technology to supplement the existing bus infrastructure that we have … then we can set up a tiered increase as time goes along. You can always set up another referendum every couple of years if we need to increase.”
David Hiland: “I think that Nashville needs to be innovative in creating a mass transit plan, but I don’t want to break the bank on it. … I think some entrepreneurial ride-share programs could be put in place and that could help alleviate some of the traffic. I think the exit ways — the on-ramps and off-ramps of some interstates — can be widened.”
Harold Love: “My transit priorities are to insure that our buses that we currently use are at the optimal level of performance. … I would love also for us to see our app that we use right now for transit to be upgraded to a point that you could actually see the bus as it’s coming, almost like in real-time you do with Uber or with Lyft.”
Jeff Napier: “We’re looking at more of a regional plan like the Music City Star. … There’s also other rails that comes in from every city around Nashville: Clarksville, Murfreesboro, Franklin and Columbia area. So my idea would be to get with CSX and see what we can put together.”
Jon Sewell: “I proposed a zip line from Fort Negley to the upstairs at Robert’s Western World, because everyone knows: head upstairs first, don’t try to deal with the hoi polloi downstairs. But I would say, honestly probably: Can we just get some sidewalks and improve the current bus system?”
Jeff Obafemi Carr: “By putting together the best practices from what I’ve heard over the last three months, along with some of the really good practices that are in the current plan or the proposed plan, I think we can chart out a plan that works best for everyone that is cost efficient.”
Carol Swain: “I’ve seen a number of plans — including Robert Swope’s ‘intelligent transit plan’ — I think that we should look at some of the other alternatives that we were not presented with when all the focus was on the Barry/Briley plan.”