Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
It wasn’t just a city vs. suburb thing.
Voters in Nashville rejected a sweeping transit plan on Tuesday night by an overwhelming margin. The plan’s supporters got trounced. In the end, residents voted it down by a 2-to-1 margin.
Had it passed, Let’s Move Nashville—the boldest municipal transit plan in recent memory—would have launched five light-rail lines, one downtown tunnel, four bus rapid transit lines, four new crosstown buses, and more than a dozen transit centers around the city. Depending on how you do the math, the scheme would have cost $5.4 billion or more like $9 billion, funded by a raft of boosted local taxes. More than 44,000 voters across Metro Nashville’s Davidson County came out in favor of the referendum, with more than 79,000 voting against it.
Maybe the writing was on the wall back in March, when Megan Barry, Nashville’s promising mayor, resigned in disgrace. She introduced the plan in October of last year and was out of office just four months later. That didn’t make for a lot of time to convince transit-skeptical voters. While Barry’s star power was critical in securing the support from the state legislature that made the proposal possible, her collapse came just weeks before the ballot proposal.
Building mass transit for a car-dependent city in a conservative Southern state is always a stretch, but this plan arrived like a bullet, sped by the urgency of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce. Public debate over the proposal was fierce. And it’s not really finished: Barry’s interim successor, David Briley, faces a special mayoral election in three weeks.
But when the votes came in last night, they told an awfully familiar story. Note the stark geography in this map of the results.
That’s a simplified version of the city’s politics, of course; while the vote fell broadly along urbanite versus suburbanite lines, a map reflecting the vote tally, and not just the vote result, would look more purplish. But not all that purplish. In the end, a vision for transforming transit in Nashville could not transform the politics of the city.
“There were a host of reasons [the proposal failed], like the cost ($9 billion), the scale (20 plus miles of light rail), the funding source (sales tax increase) and the financing structure (a decade of interest-only payments),” writes Emily Evans, managing director for healthcare policy for Hedgeye Potomac Research, in an email. Evans previously worked as a municipal financial analyst and served on the Nashville City Council for nine years.
“Ironically, all of the reasons for the lopsided vote total and the enormous turnout were created entirely by the cynical view of a few political insiders that they and only they knew what was best for Nashville,” Evans writes.
Nashville is not the only city to go bust on a big transit vote in recent years. Back when Austin faced a rail-or-fail vote in 2014 to build a (much more limited) transit system, the ballot measure fell to the same long odds. The light-rail plan had only tepid support from progressives, and it even garnered the opposition of Austin’s grassroots urbanist transit association. Now the city is thinking about a gondola.
Similarly, some Nashville progressives also fretted that the plan might lead to displacement or argued that the money could be better spent on housing. But the larger battle was drawn along ideological left-right lines—with the Koch Brothers even making a special appearance in a Tennessean op-ed on election day—and also more traditional urbanite-suburbanite lines, which an administration mired in scandal could not overcome.
“Nashville isn’t opposed to a transit plan,” Evans writes. “They were just opposed to this transit plan which, to me anyway, looked more like a bond deal and a real estate development strategy. For that reason, I expect Mayor [David] Briley to be very effective in developing more cost effective alternatives that involve a more diverse and innovative points of view.”
Briley stands alone in a crowded field for the next mayoral election: Among the 11 candidates running in the special election on May 24, he is the transit plan’s only vocal supporter. Early voting starts in just two days.
In the days and weeks to come, transit supporters and opponents (and would-be mayors) will perform the full autopsy for Let’s Move Nashville. The chamber is already coming under fire for pushing too aggressively to put the system up for a vote before transit planners could convince skeptical voters. (The timing of the vote lined up with the city’s efforts to woo Amazon to Nashville, which is one of the 20 finalists for the company’s HQ2 sweepstakes. That dark-horse possibility is almost certainly dashed by the transit failure.) If Music City is like everywhere else, residents will be debating a gondola by summer.
Another transit initiative may not be in the offing soon. While the Let’s Move Nashville fight got weird by the end, it also featured some factors that may be hard to repeat, such as convincing the conservative state legislature to let large metro areas pass their own tax increases, or building a proposal around the same mixture of tax increases on locals (sales and business) and tourists (hotel and car rental).
But the ramifications of the plan’s failure—which followed the failure of a big bus rapid transit scheme called AMP in 2015—could be larger, culturally and politically. Nashville has been undertaking a series of large-scale development projects, including a $623 million convention center, which is now undergoing a $20 million expansion. The city’s $91 million minor-league baseball stadium came in well over budget. Next up: a $275 million professional soccer stadium. All of these projects in some sense belong to Rich Riebeling, who serves as Nashville’s chief operating officer and worked as finance director under the mayor before Barry.
An election coming so quick on the heels of a once-in-a-generation ballot bid will no doubt be another referendum on the referendum. Nashville residents may enjoy its current it-city status. But Nashville voters just slammed on the brakes.