Nashville, Tennessee Voters Reject Light-Rail Proposal

Published June 12, 2018

Nashville, Tennessee voters rejected a ballot proposal that would have increased several taxes to pay for a new, 26-mile-long, light-rail public transit system and electric-powered buses for the Nashville Metropolitan Transit Authority.

More than 64 percent of voters rejected the Transit Improvement Program Referendum measure on May 1.

The measure would have temporarily raised the city’s sales, hotel occupancy, rental car, and business taxes and allowed the city to take on new public debt. The project would have cost up to $8.9 billion over the next 14 years.

The Wheels on the Bus …

When it comes to relieving traffic congestion,  Nashville city planners should get on the bus, says Baruch Feigenbaum, a transportation policy analyst with the Reason Foundation and a policy advisor for The Heartland Institute, which publishes Budget & Tax News.

“I’ve suggested, and a number of folks have suggested, that Nashville should focus on a bus rapid transit system,” Feigenbaum said. “Bus rapid transit is a high-capacity system, but unlike a rail line, it runs on the streets. In many corridors, buses could share space with cars, so you wouldn’t need to build anything new.

“For the cost of three light-rail lines in Nashville, you could build a comprehensive bus rapid-transit system that would serve the metro area better,” Feigenbaum said. “Rail lines are designed by nature to feed people downtown, and in an area like Nashville that has built up around the automobile, many of the jobs are not downtown. A bus network would do a better job of actually connecting suburban areas where many of the jobs are.”

Lack of Congestion Relief

Ron Shultis, policy coordinator for the Beacon Center of Tennessee, says voters rejected the plan because it wouldn’t actually solve the city’s traffic problems.

“The main reason why the public voted it down was that it was made pretty clear early on that this was not going to reduce congestion,” Shultis said. “In fact, the proponents of the plan first talked about it being a congestion plan, then they gave up on that message and talked about it being a jobs plan.

“We were going to spend $9 billion dollars just to create construction jobs in Nashville,” Shultis said. “We’re in no need of more construction; there’s plenty of a demand for it anyways. It’s not like we’re in any sort of job crunch here.”

Suggests Using Private Contractors

The proposed light-rail system would have been a government endeavor, but a rapid-transit bus system could be operated by contracted private companies, which often provide better service, Feigenbaum says.

“The transit agency, or the city, is going to be setting the policies, but the bus line itself may actually be operated by a private entity,” he said. “Typically, what I recommend is doing some sort of request for proposals or request for contract, to see if the private sector can operate the line more cost-effectively and with better services than the government can. That’s not always the case, but it often is, and it’s good to put it out there.”

Dollars and Sense

Whatever the answer to the city’s transportation problems may be, taxpayer-funded light rail doesn’t make sense for Nashville, Shultis says.

“Reducing congestion is something that needs to be done for Nashville because it is a growing problem,” Shultis said. “So many cities have shown the effects of gridlock on the economy and the quality of life, but it’s wrong to spend $9 billion, for a city that’s already having debt problems, on a plan that isn’t going to do anything.

“When you break it down, light rail is a nineteenth century technology for a twenty-first century city,” Shultis said. “There are so many more effective and cost-effective alternatives that can actually solve the problem.”