Nashville Rejects Transit: What Happens Now


Noah van Mierlo

This past Tuesday, May 1st, Nashville voted to reject the transit plan proposed by the Metro Government, which would have improved the city’s public transportation using dedicated funding obtained by raising four taxes. Vanderbilt University, the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, and the Vanderbilt College Democrats participated as members of the Transit for Nashville coalition. Many are now asking what happens now, since the rejection of this plan prevents further action from being taken for at least a few years.

According to the IMPROVE Act, passed by the Tennessee state legislature in 2017, a local government must wait one year before voting on different transit referendum, if the first were to fail. However, this would not happen next year for various reasons.

Despite there being an upcoming mayoral special election in late May, whoever wins that race will not begin the process for a new transit solution. Regardless of whether the 2018 winner will want to propose a new transit plan or not, the political realities of a failed transit referendum mean that a new mayoral administration will be needed to start a new plan. Given that the next mayoral election is in 2019, this shift in administrations makes it impossible, or at the very least quite unlikely, to have another vote in just a year.

Once the new mayoral administration is in place in 2019, either under current acting Mayor David Briley or someone else, there will need to be a new, year-long planning and public input process, similar to nMotion, the Nashville Metropolitan Transit Authority’s roadmap for improving Middle Tennessee’s transit, in order to formulate a new proposal for Nashville. Once that is completed, it will take several months for the necessary independent financial analysis by a certified public accounting (CPA) firm, with approval by the State Comptroller, who is essentially Tennessee’s chief financial officer. This makes it very unrealistic to expect a vote in the 2020 election.

Following certification and approval, the proponents of the plan would then need to reassemble a coalition of transit supporters who like the new plan, and they will also need to begin raising millions of dollars in order to run a professional campaign. This now will set Nashville back to the Congressional midterm election in 2022, or if the mayor believes that a presidential election turnout gives the plan a higher chance of passing, the 2024 presidential election.

Once the referendum passes, it would take another few years to plan, engineer, and collect community input before any construction begins. That is a minimum of four to six years, and given that the plan being voted on this year is the result of months of public input and research, it is unlikely that the plan that Nashville votes on in 2022 or 2024 is much different from the currently proposed plan.

This doesn’t mean that it won’t pass, though. There have been examples of cities’ voters rejecting transit proposals only to approve later ones. In Seattle, voters rejected a plan in 2002 before approving an $18 billion rail plan in 2008. In Atlanta, a 2012 plan was defeated before a 2016 plan was approved. After voting against a light rail system in 2014, voters in Austin are considering having another referendum in 2020.

After all, the nMotion study and plan had three solutions for improving public transportation in Middle Tennessee: one called a Comprehensive Regional Transit System, which included the prime recommendations of nMotion; Bus-Focused Expansion, which is centered on buses; and Modest Improvements, which is meant to generally grow the transit system with the growth of the population. Those who still want a transportation solution should advocate for elected officials to move forward with one of those solutions, and create a plan that can still serve Nashville.