By Lee Rennick
Transit has been a hot topic in Nashville since the area started to see new population growth in the mid-1990s. While funding is the gasoline igniting the flame of debate this time around, when the conversation first began, commute times were not rising as they have been in the last few years, and few saw the importance of creating a mass transit system.
In the late 1990s, there were visionaries that saw growth coming. At that time Nashville was offered the opportunity to receive significant federal money to build a dedicated transportation system. This system would have reached its fingers out to those areas that were congested even then: the roads coming into Nashville from Murfreesboro, Gallatin, Franklin, and Mt. Juliet. Sadly, interest in the project could not be rallied, and the $525 million that was sitting on the table went to Denver, Colorado. Some of those involved at the time estimate that the funding would have covered about 80% of the cost of the system.
The next conversation that arose about transportation was the very controversial AMP. Traffic was picking up in spite of the number of widened highways and roadways that had been built. At that time, the federal government was on track to provide 43% of the $174 million dollar cost of a high-speed bus system that was being propose to deal with Nashville’s growing congestion.
That opportunity went down in flames. Again the dollars went elsewhere. However, this time more came to see the need to do something about the “traffic problem.” Building or widening more roads was not going to lower the number of cars on the road. And there is only so much land.
Nashville Chamber of Commerce representatives and teams of interested business leaders studied what other cities were doing about transit networks, transportation costs, and public education, but things were changing. More and more cities were beginning to compete for jobs, and public transportation started to become as important as a good education system to corporations looking to relocate.
What this means is that, since AMP died, federal funding for public transportation systems has become more competitive.
What Is On the Table This Time?
Currently, it is estimated that the federal government will contribute about $1.5 billion to the $9.0 billion dollar 15-year plan price tag, or about 17% of the cost of the system. According to the Let’s Move Nashville Transit Improvement Program, the rest of the program “…will be funded by a combination of new voter-approved local surcharges, …long-term financing, fares, and other revenues.”
What is obvious here is that inaction has created missed fiscal opportunities for federal funding that were, in the end, received by other cities who went on to build massive transportation systems that have successfully decreased the number of cars on the road.
The longer Nashville waits to approve a dedicated transportation plan, the more the price tag is funded locally. Putting the price of service in the lap of state and local governments. And in the end, the local taxpayer.
What all this inactivity has wrought, is that voting a dedicated transit system down has increased the local burden of a project that will become inevitable.
Cost to Nashville Tax Payers
While few want to pay more taxes, the cost of this project will, in the end, cost each Nashvillian only about $10 per year. And the tax rate will still be well below the national average of 8.6% according to data shared by the Transit Alliance of Middle Tennessee. Ten dollars is one less meal out per person per year.
What Transit Will Bring
According to an article on the Nashville Chamber of Commerce website, “[w]ithout a comprehensive range of future travel options, the inability to move people and goods will impede quality of life, economic growth and regional competitiveness. Roadway improvements and capacity expansions will be part of the solutions to relieve traffic congestion. However, the region will be unable to solve congestion through roadway projects alone. Travel and mobility challenges also need to be addressed through a robust transit system that embraces paradigm-shifting technology, such as Light Rail Transit (LRT), Rapid Bus and autonomous vehicles, that integrates a functional network of pedestrian and bicycle pathways, and leverages the capacity improvements to the existing roadway network through a “complete streets” design approach that seamlessly accommodates all modes.”
According to research done on the results seen by competing cities that have completed a transit plan, an increase of almost 4,000 jobs per year is expected. The transit program, when competed, will link 76% of the population to 89% of available jobs, according to Transit for Nashville.
Williamson County Outcomes
If Nashville passes the transit proposal on May 1, that will mean that officials from outlying counties, like Williamson County, will be able to put their own transit plans into effect, connecting to the Nashville plan.
While the Let’s Move Nashville Plan is what is under debate, the conversation reaches far beyond the Davidson County line. The outcome of the Nashville vote will, like pitching a rock into water, create ripples that will effect the personal and business lives of far more than those who live within the voting district.