Nearly three years ago, then-Mayor Megan Barry took to the stage at the Music City Center, surrounded by her predecessors in the office as well as other city dignitaries, to unveil what she called “the largest project in modern Nashville history.” It was an unprecedented suite of transit projects including 26 miles of light rail, an underground transfer station, more than $5 billion in capital costs and billions more in operating costs.
The plan and its sales tax increase failed spectacularly when put to a vote of Nashville residents, and now one of its chief critics has a plan of his own.
The rollout, like the new plan, was relatively quiet. No big celebration at the Music City Center. No fancy graphics. John Cooper, during Barry’s term a Metro Councilmember but now the mayor, revealed his promised transit plan via interviews with his transportation adviser, Faye DiMassimo.
Cooper’s plan would cost approximately $1.5 billion in capital spending, DiMassimo told the Post, and would focus on “meat-and-potatoes issues: improved bus service, addressing a backlog of sidewalk and infrastructure work, a dedicated-lane rapid bus service along Murfreesboro Pike and transit centers in North Nashville and Green Hills, among other projects (many of them pulled from previous planning documents like nMotion). DiMassimo highlights a city survey that found that more than 90 percent of Davidson County residents and workplaces will be within half a mile of an improvement included in the plan.
“The mayor made a commitment during his campaign to a new people-first transportation plan, something that was fundamentally about the people in Metro, the residents, the businesses, the neighborhoods, and to deliver that during his first year,” DiMassimo said. “I think our council and our mayor and our community understand that the metro cities across this country that are going to emerge from COVID into recovery with the highest amount of success are going to be those that never quit making progress.”
The plan is “absolutely” a draft and will be finalized after more discussions with Metro councilmembers and the community through October. DiMassimo said the goal is to get the package before the Metro Council for a vote in November.
DiMassimo insists that a dedicated funding source like a sales tax levy for transit is not being considered in the short term, but could be on the table later. Dedicated funding streams like sales and other taxes are included on the list of dozens of funding buckets included in the mayor’s office materials on the plan.
“That's not the tool we need right now,” she said. “It doesn't mean it should never be there, but it does mean that it's not the tool that we're contemplating in any manner right now.”
Instead, Metro would seek “opportunistic funding” in the form of state and federal grants and other funding options. Those might be easier to swallow in a year when Cooper and the Metro Council raised property tax rates by more than 30 percent while cutting back on some city services in response to a COVID-19 revenue shortfall.
That lack of a dedicated funding stream has some transit advocates cautious in their support for the Cooper plan.
“There is a basket of potential revenues available under the IMPROVE Act for this purpose,” said Councilmember Freddie O’Connell, who chairs the Metro Council Traffic, Parking and Transportation Committee. “You can use wheel tax and a handful of other things, but they don't add up to the funding stream that you would need to carry out a plan of any ambition in terms of annual revenue. At some point, it’s got to become an actual plan. I look at this as a rough draft rather than a final draft, but I don't think that's necessarily a problem as long as we can eventually get to a final draft.”
O’Connell applauds the Cooper administration for including the council early in the process, which he calls “a very significant departure from previous planning conversations.” He also says that “the plan itself has a lot of worthwhile elements,” specifically highlighting new “innovation corridors” along Charlotte and Gallatin pikes.
Nora Kern, executive director of Walk Bike Nashville, had a similar response: cautious optimism.
“The last one was throwing everything possible into the bucket, and the voters rejected it as being too huge,” Kern said. “I think the price tag looks more doable and probably a better intermediate step — before we have four light rail lines, let's get our buses fixed and make our neighborhood streets safe and fix our traffic lights.”
Like O’Connell, Kern is seeking more information on the money behind the plan.
“You can't plan multi-year investments for a whole system while relying on grants and one-off funding sources,” she said, “because if you don't get that one grant, then the whole thing falls apart, and it makes it really hard to make those longer-term decisions that you need to make a five-year investment in the bus system.”
But DiMassimo believes it’s possible to piece the funding together, and she thinks the Metro Council will buy in, even after this year’s tough budget process.
“We understood the financial constraints that Metro, our residents and businesses face,” DiMassimo said. “We've been through a tornado and then the pandemic. The mayor inherited some really significant budget constraints, and those have only deepened with those tragic events. With that top of mind, we said now’s not the time to come forward with a big dedicated funding approach. Now's the time to come forward with something where we can begin to make a difference [for] our residents, neighborhoods, businesses and Metro Nashville, but do it in a way that's understanding of the times that we're in.”