Nashville voters are set to decide the fate of an ambitious transit plan on May 1. Erik Schelzig/AP

On May 1, voters will decide the fate of a massive regional transit overhaul. And things are getting ugly.

On May 1, Nashville voters are set to decide the fate of a $5.4 billion transit plan known as Let’s Move Nashville. It’s a potentially transformative proposal, one that could reshape Music City for generations. If passed, the plan will create five new light rail lines totaling 26 miles, a 1.8 mile downtown transit tunnel, 19 transit centers around the city, four new bus rapid transit lines, four new crosstown bus routes, and a slew of signal, sidewalk, and bike infrastructure improvements. Thanks to a legal opening created by some creative political work, funding will come from raising four city taxes. The bulk of the revenue will come from an increase in sales tax, which by 2023 will go up a full point to 10.25 percent.

The referendum has ignited a passionate, often downright strange public debate, one that’s in keeping with the plan’s sweeping ambitions and serious price tag. (The plan is also referred to as a $8.9 billion transit plan, since Nashville’s Metro Council voted to include both dollar amounts on the ballot; the larger number includes interest and operating expenses.) There’s only one thing people seem to agree on: This is the biggest decision to come down the pike, so to speak, in Nashville for a long time.

“I can’t think of a single more important moment for the city expressed as an election,” says Nashville Metro Council member Freddie O’Connell, “maybe since the city and county consolidated.” That happened in 1962.

The terms of the debate are generally being framed on starkly ideological and geographical lines, with progressive urbanites squaring off against conservatives in the suburbs. On the pro side, boosters of the plan have posited the plan as the logical next dot on the city’s timeline on forward progress, rhetoric befitting the city’s image as a liberal haven in a deeply conservative state. In an op-ed in The Tennessean, Dave Goetz, a finance commissioner under former Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen, compared the moral weight of this moment to desegregating the city’s lunch counters and voting down an anti-immigrant English-only ordinance in 2009.

Not surprisingly, opposition to the referendum has hopped on the same metaphor, but in the reverse direction. “It really is a look back,” according to Jeff Eller, senior advisor for the No Tax 4 Tracks PAC, which has been the biggest and most visible opponent of the plan. The group balks at the proposal’s high price and lack of utility for non-city residents, and insists that the additional taxes will place a burden on seniors and small-business owners. “We think you’ve got to start on May 2 having a conversation about things that work now, using new technology and different ideas than the light rail scenario of the past.”

Amid considerable fanfare, Nashville Mayor Megan Barry introduced the plan to the public in October 2017. Barry was then considered a rising Democratic star, and the plan was hailed as a politically audacious bid to secure a lasting legacy. But just four months later she was out of office. The mayor resigned on March 6 after pleading guilty to felony theft, related to $170,000 in overtime paid to her head of security, with whom she had admitted in January to having an extramarital affair. It’s unclear how much the resignation affected the chances of the referendum she championed. But it’s worth noting that among the candidates to formally replace her in the May 24 special election, only Barry’s interim successor, David Briley, supports the plan.

The Barry scandal definitely added a twist to the public debate over the transit referendum, which frankly didn’t require any further drama. Indeed, it only got weirder as May 1 approached.

In recent weeks, referendum-related stories have utterly dominated the local media, especially on the opinion pages of The Tennessean, Nashville’s daily paper, where you can find op-eds describing the transit plan as, variously, “a bold step forward,” the product of “funny math and flawed reasoning“ and “the only option.” Other recent op-eds claim the plan “will improve our health,” “can help economically disadvantaged,” “would create gridlock“ and “will not stop gentrification.” Still others claim the plan “fixes the right problem the wrong way“ and that it “won’t fix traffic congestion, but that’s not the point.”

The Tennessean also unwittingly became part of the story when it published a piece by a local writer named Matt Johnson headlined “Five reasons to oppose Nashville transit plan.” One problem: Matt Johnson does not exist. In a follow-up, Tennessean reporter Adam Tamburin explained that a self-described volunteer advocacy organization—confusingly called Better Transit for Nashville—used “a fake name and a misappropriated photo.”

In the wake of this, David Plazas, The Tennessean’s opinion page editor, published a soul-searching editorial that asked “Why can’t we be more civil on the Nashville transit debate?“ (The paper’s editorial board has since endorsed the plan.)

Alas, things only got uglier. Hours after the Waffle House mass shooting on April 22, in which four people were killed in the Nashville neighborhood of Antioch, Better Transit for Nashville referenced the killings on its Facebook page. “[W]e are sorry to post this, but ‘transit’ will bring more crime like this,” said the post, which was later deleted.

A spokesman for the group, Jim Harwell, told The Tennessean that the page has many admins, and that the post was “made by one volunteer and does not represent what our group stands for.” But the implication that improving mobility would be a conduit for urban mayhem brought swift rebuttals from transit advocates nationwide.

On the other side, a group called Nashville for Transit, which supports the referendum, has also been outspoken about the larger political currents running underneath the proposal. One recent mailer describes the referendum’s opponents as using “Trump-Style Lies” and counting among their ranks “far-right donors and out-of-state special interests—including one bankrolled by the oil billionaire Koch Brothers.”

That’s a shot at No Tax 4 Tracks, the leading opposition organization. The Koch connection centers around Lee Beaman, a car-dealership magnate and anti-transit activist who stepped down as the group’s treasurer in February. Beaman had helped lead opposition to a previous bus rapid transit plan, The Amp, which was killed off in 2015 after an aggressive campaign against it by Americans for Prosperity, the conservative political advocacy group funded by the Koch Brothers. As recently as last January, Americans for Prosperity was also leading the charge against the current transit plan.

On April 10, during a public debate at the Nashville Public Library, No Tax 4 Tracks spokesman jeff obafemi carr held up a copy of the group’s financial disclosure and declared there was “no money coming from the boogeyman Koch brothers.” According to that disclosure, $750,000 of the almost $950,000 raised comes from 501(c)(4) nonprofit Nashville Smart, which is not required to list its donors. “Almost 80 percent of the No Tax 4 Tracks money is dark money,” Steve Cavendish writes in the Nashville Scene, “accountable to no one.”

Eller, the No Tax 4 Tracks strategist, maintains that the group has not received any money from the Koch brothers. “We think it’s unfortunate that the pro-transit side wants to demonize people who talk about this plan,” he says.

For its part, Nashville for Transit has raised $2.5 million through the PAC Citizens for Greater Mobility. Much of that has come from large donors like the National Association of Realtors, Community Health Systems, and Bridgestone Americas.

While much of the fight around the plan is polarized along typical left-right lines, there has also been resistance from progressive circles among those who wonder if the plan’s multi-billion-dollar budget couldn’t be better spent addressing economic and housing issues directly. Tamika Douglas, a member of the grassroots organizations Music City Riders United (MCRU) and People’s Alliance for Transit, Housing & Employment (PATHE), recently outlined some of their concerns in an interview with the Scene. ”We want equitable transit that doesn’t displace people, and we want to make sure that we’re also focused on housing,” Douglas says. “If you don’t have a place to stay or a home, who cares about a train versus a bus? We’ve got to get more housing in this city.”

Council member Freddie O’Connell says he struggles with this aspect of the debate, in part because the problems are so complex. But he maintains that transportation improvements would indeed address economic issues. If passed, the transit plan would eliminate fares for Nashville residents living at or below the federal poverty level, and improvements to bus service, including greater frequency on busy routes, would begin almost immediately. What’s more, O’Connell says that by needing to have regular access to a car to get around Nashville, residents are already paying an “invisible surcharge.” He also points to work already in progress on a Transit Oriented District plan that “will be a template for Nashville that will be as generative of affordable housing as any of the other tools in our toolkit right now.”

It remains to be seen whether that argument will carry the day on May 2. Invisible surcharge or not, Nashville in 2018 is still very much a car town. After the transit referendum debate at the downtown public library, co-host Tracy Kornet closed the proceedings by thanking everyone in attendance.

Then, she added, “Drive safely.”

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