In 2018, an ambitious plan to expand Nashville’s public transportation system crashed at the polls. The story of how the campaign came apart is relevant far beyond the Music City. Transit in Nashville faces challenges similar to those in other American cities, particularly across the Sunbelt. Nashville’s streets have been engineered and designed to prioritize cars at the expense of walking, biking, and transit. After decades of sprawling land-use development, population and job densities in many areas are too low to support high-quality transit.
A legacy of discrimination in housing and transportation policy has segregated the city’s neighborhoods. Public transit is chronically underfunded,
and the prospects for long-term financial resources from the State of Tennessee are slim. Transit referendums can be among cities’ most powerful tools to overcome these challenges. And while it is rarely easy to win a transit referendum, cities, counties, and regions across the country have
succeeded. Yours can, too—but you should take care to learn not only from those successes but from the setbacks.
Take Metro Nashville, a consolidated city-county government of nearly 700,000 residents, the capital of Tennessee, and one of the fastest-growing metro areas in the nation. With rapid growth and booming downtown tourism, “traffic” ascended to the top of residents’ list of concerns in 2017, edging out affordable housing and education. Yet the following year, proponents of public transportation lost a transit funding vote by large margins.
Local leaders had long recognized the region’s growing transportation challenges. Following then-Mayor Karl Dean’s withdrawal of a controversial rapid bus line in early 2015, the Nashville Metropolitan Transit Authority (since rebranded as WeGo Transit) repurposed federal grant funding to perform a comprehensive planning process dubbed nMotion. The nMotion process included more than a year of public meetings, surveys, and technical analysis, and generated a regional transportation plan, published in 2016, that continues to inform WeGo Transit’s priorities.
Nashvillians elected Megan Barry as the city’s first female mayor in late 2015. Barry made transit her administration’s highest priority, working with the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, state legislators, and others to enact legislation (the IMPROVE Act) that would allow Nashville and several other Tennessee cities and counties to run ballot measures proposing tax increases to fund public transit. Immediately after the IMPROVE Act’s passage in May 2017, the Barry administration conducted an internal four-month planning process to choose projects for a ballot measure. This planning process culminated in the launch of the Transit for Nashville coalition in September 2017—formed to support a referendum—and subsequent release of the Let’s Move Nashville plan in October. At this time Mayor Barry was overwhelmingly popular, and polling suggested that raising taxes to fund transit expansion had majority support in Metro Nashville. Parallel to the mayor’s planning process, the chamber of commerce laid the groundwork for the Transit for Nashville campaign, hiring consultants and signing off on the campaign’s overall strategy.