Transit Referendum

Over the next six months, the Council will be asked to take positions on several important issues. Before these debates come to a head, I want to share my current thoughts about each of them. This post is about the potential transit referendum. I have also posted separately about the possibility of a soccer stadium and the commercial development proposed for Ft. Negley Park.

Here’s what I think I know:

  • The Mayor has proposed a Gallatin Pike light rail line into downtown.
  • There is talk around the courthouse of a referendum to approve a dedicated funding source for transit-related development and infrastructure as early as the May 1, 2018, local primary election.  That is less than 9 months from now.
  • Any referendum would need to be approved by the Council before going on the ballot. I don’t know what the exact deadline is for getting Council approval, but there is talk around the courthouse that the Council decision could be as late as January 2018 for a May referendum. It is really up the administration to decide when they want to present this to the Council.  I have assumed that the administration will seek approval for funding a soccer stadium before approaching us about the transit referendum…but that’s just a guess.
  • Elements of the business community are organizing a group to lobby the Nashville community to vote yes on the referendum.  I don’t know exactly who is involved, but I hear that the organized private effort to support the referendum will launch after Labor Day. And I imagine there will be an organized campaign against the referendum, but I don’t have any visibility into those efforts.

Here’s what I don’t know:

  • What tax, and in what amount, will be proposed? I am also curious to see exactly which Metro agency will be proposed to spend the money, and to approve specific plans.
  • How will a Gallatin Pike rail line cross the Cumberland River? The word I hear is that it will be on the center, reversible lane on the James Robertson Bridge.  But that’s rumor as far as I can tell.
  • Where will the rail line drop riders off  downtown? Again according to rumor, it will be somewhere on the north side of downtown, but not at the existing MTA bus station.
  • How will riders get around downtown? This is important to me. I would argue that the lack of a circulation system with dedicated lanes for people to get around downtown is what holds back the Music City Star ridership. This is a tough problem because our streets are so narrow downtown. But to me, this issue isn’t going away. No matter how many train lines we run into downtown, if people have to walk a half mile up hill in the heat or the cold, I think we’ll have ridership problems. I am hoping that this first rail line proposes something bold about how to get people around downtown better.  (And for the love of all that is good in the world, don’t say ‘golf carts.’)
  • There is a golden rule with transit systems — the bigger they are, the more money they lose. Sometimes people shy away from saying that. I’m not one of those people. The transit system itself will always lose money and the bigger it gets, the more it will lose. The question is about what other gains will be realized. What level of property tax increases are expected around new train stations, for example? Someone needs to model out what the expected losses will be from our new bigger transit system, talk about how to fund these increased operating losses, and predict what the related revenue gains will be.

I am supportive of building a better transit system. I will need to get reasonably good answers to these questions in order to support putting a transit referendum on the ballot.

Bob Mendes

Bob Mendes represents all of Nashville as a Council-At-Large member of Nashville’s Metro Council. He is Chair of the Council’s Charter Revision Committee, a member of the Metropolitan Audit Committee, and a member of the Council’s Budget & Finance Committee, Rules & Confirmations Committee, and Ad Hoc Affordable Housing Committee. Bob also practices business law at Waypoint Law PLLC. Bob’s complete bio is here. You can follow Bob @mendesbob.