What’s next for the transit referendum?

As Nashville digests yesterday’s news about the Mayor, many people are asking what it might mean for the transit referendum. The Council is set to vote on our third and final reading on February 6. If we pass the bill, then the transit plan and the proposed new tax surcharges will be on the ballot for a public referendum on May 1. If we delay at all, May 1 will be impossible and advocates would have to decide whether to try to get the referendum on the ballot for either the August or November 2018 election.

I don’t have a great answer for what the impact on transit will be. For me, the starting point is that the Mayor has been the public face of the drive toward passing a transit referendum on May 1. After yesterday, if she can regain the public’s trust, it will take time. The question is whether a May 1 transit referendum can succeed during this period of diminished trust and confidence in the Mayor.

I have my doubts about whether it can pass in May – I just don’t know. If the Mayor’s indiscretion is in the news through early voting and election day on May 1, it seems like it would be hard for the referendum to pass. At a minimum, I think everyone would have to agree that it would be an uphill battle if the transit conversation is competing for airtime every week with investigations and inquiries. The risk of the transit referendum failing in this situation seems high and should make anyone consider pushing it off to an August or November 2018 election.

On the other hand, pushing off the referendum wouldn’t necessarily foster a better environment for the public to consider whether to adopt the transit plan and the proposed new tax surcharges. It is hard to predict whether a weakened administration would hamper a vote later in 2018 too, or if the delay would allow enough time to clear the air so more attention could be paid to the referendum. There just isn’t clarity about how this would play out.

So the choices are to have a May referendum with the face of the transit campaign weakened and working on rebuilding trust in the stretch run up to the election, or delay the referendum and hope circumstances will allow Nashville to focus more on the transit referendum. Which would you pick?

On top of this, I have been revisiting my thoughts about the transit plan itself. My earlier posts are here and here. For those of you that have read them, you know that some parts of the transit financial plan have given me pause. For example , it still has not been well discussed in the media that the transit plan assumes paying interest only until 2032 on $3B in revenue bonds. After that, principal gets added to the payments in increments each year through 2039. From 2040 to 2060, the plan calls for level principal payments of $226 million each. The reason the principal payments increase over time before leveling off for the last 20 years is because projected revenue from the new tax surcharges won’t support full principal and interest payments until 2040. In turn, if there isn’t enough revenue generated to make full principal and interest payments until 2040, this begs questions about how we might pay for a next phase if we were to decide in the 2020s that we would like to extend a rail line to the county line.

The question I started with was how the Mayor’s situation might impact the transit referendum bill the Council is considering on February 6. At this point, I don’t know. I’m going to have to see how the next several days play out.

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.