Nashville Mayor Megan Barry unveiled a sweeping $5.2 billion transit overhaul for the city, called "Let's Move Nashville," in October. Mark Humphrey/AP

In an era of state preemption of local authority, Nashville is pushing ahead with a major transit initiative built on new local taxes.

Nashville Mayor Megan Barry announced a massive transit overhaul for the city earlier this month—one of the boldest municipal projects in recent memory, and easily the biggest in Nashville history. The $5.2 billion plan would introduce 26 miles of inlight rail across four new lines, four rapid bus lines, expanded bus service for existing routes, a major downtown tunneling project, and some two dozen transit centers across the city.

Let’s Move Nashville”goes up for a referendum vote in May 2018. Over the next 7 months, residents of the consolidated Nashville–Davidson County area will debate a goliath project that calls for increases to four taxes in order to pay for a metro transit dig that will run through 2032.

The lion’s share of the proposal would be paid for by a one-half percent increase to the sales tax in Nashville, starting in July 2018, which will jump to a full 1 percent in 2023. That’s a tall order, even for liberal Davidson County. But the biggest obstacles to the mayor’s vision of a comprehensive city transit scheme—one pitched as the root of a regional transit rethink—may already be behind the city.

“Let’s Move Nashville” includes plans for new rail and expanded bus service. (Nashville Office of Transportation and Sustainability)

The real genius of “Let’s Move Nashville” is in the way that the city won state support for long-term local planning initiatives.

In recent years, significant municipal transit schemes have crashed hard on the shoals of state politics. Where conservative state leaders hold the gubernatorial mansion, dashed liberal transit dreams often follow. Consider the 2015 decision by Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, a Republican elected the prior year, to scotch the Red Line, an east-west light-rail project for Baltimore. He reallocated $2.9 billion planned for the corridor to various state highway projects (and passed on $900 million in dedicated federal funds along the way). Even in a blue state like New York, the governor largely pins the blame on New York City’s transit meltdown on the city—despite the fact that the subway is squarely the state’s responsibility.

“Being a southern city, there’s a state law against impact fees,” says Erin Hafkenschiel, director of the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Sustainability in Nashville. “A lot of our development happens by right. Transit is one of our biggest tools in being able to manage our growth.” Watch an interview with Hafkenschiel about the project below.

Enormous transit overhauls for major metro areas usually require state support, if not outright authorization. That priority of authority is more true of Tennessee than in many states: Volunteer State lawmakers have worked to preempt local authority on any number of areas of life, from gun laws to broadband to discrimination against LGBT residents. (Don’t get Mayor Barry started on the so-called “Nashville Statement,”a sort of far-right evangelical Vatican II on gender and sexuality norms that the mayor denounced in no uncertain terms.)

Under the previous administration, Nashville proposed a $174 million transit plan called the Amp, which envisioned new bus-rapid transit lines crisscrossing the city. That plan died in January 2015 in part because it lacked buy-in from the Tennessee Department of Transportation—and also from Nashville residents, according to Hafkenschiel.

A strategic plan for the city and nine-county region was born from the ashes of the Amp. The Nashville Metropolitan Transit Authority and Middle Tennessee Regional Transit Authority used leftover federal Small Starts funds to develop a 25-year strategic plan called nMotion. Planners introduced three options for Nashville: light rail and commuter lines, more BRT and bus expansions, or a limited plan for incremental growth.

“Overwhelmingly, Nashville residents said they wanted the light-rail options,” Hafkenschiel says, based on feedback the city received from resident polls. “They wanted the go-big, the first scenario of light rail and commuter rail.”

At the same time, Mayor Barry worked with state lawmakers on the Improving Manufacturing, Public Roads, and Opportunities for a Vibrant Economy (IMPROVE) Act, which Tennessee passed in April 2017. Among other things, the bill authorized an increase to the state gas tax for the first time since 1989; the funds would pay for road improvements. As a pay-for state, Tennessee can’t take on debt for transportation projects, which makes the IMPROVE Act a big deal—but one that benefits rural and suburban districts more than metro areas like Nashville.

“The IMPROVE Act, the day it passed, all of that money was already spent,” Hafkenschiel says. “They already had 962 projects in 95 counties that crossed the state that those revenues were immediately going into. We new we weren’t going to be able to rely on that increase in funding at the state level.”

However, the IMPROVE Act also granted municipal authorities the power to introduce surcharges—by referendum vote—on the local sales tax rate, exclusively for the purpose of funding transit. It’s the opposite of a state bill preempting metro authorities. Any county with a population larger than 112,000 people (16 counties total) or any city with a population larger than 165,000 people (Chattanooga, Knoxville, Memphis, and Nashville) may levy passenger fees on six different taxes. Mayor Barry and other metro leaders pushed state lawmakers for this accommodation in the run-up to the IMPROVE Act.

Another state policy from the Amp era requires any municipal project along a state route to earn the support of the Tennessee Department of Transportation—a potential strike against local authority. The Amp plan for BRT was extremely unlikely to win state buy-in, according to Hafkenschiel. But Nashville has involved TDOT on its high-capacity corridor plans from the start with nMotion (and subsequently, Let’s Move Nashville).

Davidson County voters will be the first to weigh in on what is being pitched as the hub of a regional transit network. Nine other counties, all more conservative than Nashville, will have to pass their own pay-fors in order to connect to the expanded system. Each of Nashville’s proposed light-rail lines (Gallatin Road, Nolensville Road, Charlotte Avenue, and Murfreesboro Road) is named for four pikes in the greater Nashville metro area—more than a nod at what a future metro rail map might look like. While a regional transit superscheme may be a question for another day, Mayor Barry has participated in a regional mayoral caucus where she has worked to advance such a vision.

“If we can show that our [transit improvements] are working really well and people are using them, regardless if you are a Republican or a Democrat, I think that will really help,” Hafkenschiel says.

Still another change in state legislation affects the way that local municipalities may define redevelopment districts (which in turn affects how development efforts are financed). The same week the IMPROVE Act passed, the Tennessee legislature approved the Transit Oriented Redevelopment Act, which expands the definition of a redevelopment district for tax purposes. Previously only “blighted” areas counted as redevelopment districts; now, “transit oriented” corridors can also qualify for tax-incremented financing. One-third of any TIF funds for transit-oriented development will go toward building affordable housing.

How to build out transit corridors equitably is a larger looming question for Nashville. Inclusionary zoning is more or less illegal in the state of Tennessee. Mayor Barry’s voluntary, incentives-based program to push private developers to build affordable units has faced repeated challenges, including a lawsuit from the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a conservative think tank. State Republicans have also taken aim at Nashville’s inclusionary zoning ambitions. Tennessee House Majority Leader Glen Casada introduced a bill that would prevent local governments from requiring developers to include affordable or workforce units in order to receive zoning variants (such as greater height or density). The bill passed the House by a 72–21 margin in March, but stalled in the Senate.

Between the May 1 referendum and the time when the first light-rail line opens—should the referendum pass—several corridors will be due for major zoning changes. The mayor has announced an affordability task force to look at the best way to commit existing affordable-housing resources to those corridors. Another goal is to preserve small businesses along those routes—both to create opportunities for small businesses and to ensure that existing ones don’t get swallowed up by national chains. When it comes to preserving the city’s character or saving its less privileged residents, Nashville’s hands are bound by state law.

The final question rests with Nashville voters: What kind of city do they want to build? Nashville is proposing a transit plan that is much, much more ambitious than the underperforming streetcars that many comparably sized cities have contented themselves to build. The results of the May referendum will guide the city’s development far beyond 2032, the year that Nashville’s transit expansion will be finished.

“This will be the biggest investment that Nashville voters have the opportunity to be a part of in their lifetime,” Hafkenschiel says. “We think it’s hugely important for the vision of the city that we all want.”

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