Decades and Billions or Now and Nothing—The Two Coming Votes on Traffic


May might seem like a long time from now. Flowers, sunshine and sunbathing.

But as the seasons change here in Middle Tennessee, one thing always seems to stay the same: traffic.

On May 1, there is a popular vote coming up on Mayor Megan Barry’s mass transit plan, which could take two decades to complete and cost nearly $9 billion. For all that, the plan as-is may not have all that much of an effect on actual congestion, the real complaint of the average commuter, something on which a growing number of experts agree.

But, there is another vote, though this one is not scheduled and might not ever be.

If it happens, it will be in the Tennessee State House of Representatives. This vote, which could pass a measure to increase Tennessee’s abysmal rate of HOV lane usage, would not take years to have an effect. It would not necessitate a single cent of construction. It would be cost-neutral or even possibly create money.

And, most importantly and to the point, it could like a surgeon with a scalpel cut congestion and commute times significantly. Rather than attempting to take on transit, traffic and congestion in one fell swoop, it identifies a single issue that could be simply fixed. It could improve commute times on the 127 miles of highway around Nashville with HOV lanes— more than half of all total highway miles in the area.

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However, ideas like this, based on common sense solutions instead of a grand yet divisive vision, get little attention amidst the transit debate building steam in Nashville.

A backlash of groups and interested individuals is coalescing to get out the “No” vote in May. They have different concerns but are united in their alarm at, and stance against, the Nashville plan.

No Tax 4 Tracks argues against the tax raises in the plan and predicts a negative effect on growth and tourism. The plan would give Nashville one of the highest sales tax rates anywhere in the country.

The Beacon Center of Tennessee hosted a sold-out panel at Belmont University Saturday whose sole focus was ‘What is wrong with the Nashville transit plan and what we should do instead.” The light-rail heavy plan is an expensive albatross, was one theme. More rapid and express buses and more routes, as a way of moving people into and out of Nashville, which puts the focus on fixing congestion, was another.

Metro Councilmembers John Cooper and Tanaka Vercher, alarmed at the cost, are pushing to make sure the ballot in May includes this language. They want the ballot to include the total cost of running the system, not just building it.

If given their way, the following will get added to the ballot:

“The capital cost of the program is estimated to have a present-day value of $5,354,000,000 and a total cost for the transit system of $8,951,062,000, with recurring annual operating and maintenance costs of approximately $99,500,000.”

The single-most expensive part of the plan is light rail, which the plan proposes building from scratch to move people around inside Davidson County. The total price tag of the light rail is $3 billion— more than $100 million per mile of new track.

To pay for this transit system Nashville proposes several tax increases, one of which would raise the city’s sales tax to 10.5 percent— higher than in any other U.S. city. Another raises the Hotel Tax, which will make staying as a guest in Nashville, with its already with limited and pricey hotel rates, even more expensive.

“Between small businesses and the tourists, that what has made Nashville successful in the past,” Melissa Smithson, a spokesperson for No Tax for Tracks PAC. “And at the end of the day, it is not going to resolve our congestion. The congestion comes from the huge numbers of people going into and out of Davidson County each day. It is not from people moving around within it.”

The transit plan, also, will serve as a model for surrounding counties.

“Once this is set in Nashville, the whole region will follow its lead in the system it sets up,” Smithson said. “We need voters to be educated on the huge issues with this plan. It is not what it is cracked up
to be.”

Those in favor of the plan, such as Nashville Chamber of Commerce Chief Policy Officer Marc Hill, seem to respond to critics by saying at least doing something is better than nothing. Hill, who attended the Beacon panel, tweeted during it:

The Nashville transit plan vote is coming down the tracks fast. May is on the way. And it is the people who will decide which side of the debate convinces them is best for the future of their city.

Meanwhile, that other vote is waiting for the legislature to construct its own consensus.
69h District state Rep. Mike Curcio and Williamson County-area 65th District Rep. Sam Whitson co-sponsor the Ride Share Commuter Incentive Act. It is sponsored by Curcio and Whitson in the state House; Sen. Jack Johnson (23rd District- Williamson County area) in the state Senate. A vote could be scheduled as soon as February 1, and go into effect— and have an effect—- this summer.

Curcio, who takes the 88x Dickson bus to the capitol to make a point about practicing what he preaches, understands traffic woes from the front line. His bill could make things a little better, a little quicker, and his logic in support of it is difficult to disagree with.

“It would not be a grand alternative to the transit plan, but it is something that can be done now, it targets congestion, and there are no downsides I can see,” Tennessee State House Rep. Mike Curcio, the sponsor of the bill in the state House of Representatives said. “It is just common sense.”

The bill raises fines for HOV violators, and increases the number of signs letting drivers know they will be fined for breaking the HOV law.

“It just makes it so that HOV lane laws are enforced in Tennessee a little bit more like they are in the rest of the country,” Curcio said.

All it is waiting on is for our leaders to act.

If they do, by the time the seasons change, then, just maybe, congestion might begin changing with it.