How not to do it: Nashville’s transit funding ballot failure provides a case study

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As transportation funding ballot measures loom nationwide, Nashville’s stunning failure two years ago stands out as a case study.

While national headlines cited the scandal-fueled resignation before the election of project champion Mayor Megan Barry along with Koch Brothers-funded opposition, the lopsided 64% to 36% defeat at the polls suggest several other factors at play, according to Zak Accuardi, the primary author of a 64-page report.

Traffic in downtown Nashville. The failure of a 2018 transit funding measure is the subject of a recent case study.

“The real story here that provides lessons for other cities to learn is much deeper than that,” Accuardi said.

Missteps include a hasty, insular planning process, the inability to adjust amid pushback and a top-down coalition of mayoral operatives and Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce consultants, said Accuardi, a technical advisor for transportation at the Natural Resources Defense Council. He wrote the report for the civic group TransitCenter.

“They had some really key blind spots,” said Accuardi, who spoke last Wednesday at TransitCenter's New York headquarters.

Nashville, the Tennessee capital, is one of the nation’s fastest-growing regions.

“It’s a progressive city in a relatively conservative state, that makes it emblematic of a lot of cities,” Accuardi said. “These cities are realizing that they need to invest in public transit and they don’t have the revenues to do so.”

Transit funding measures pending this year include elections in Cincinnati, Austin and San Antonio.

The largest recent ballot approval occurred in Washington state in 2016, to fund a $54 billion expansion for Sound Transit in Seattle. Voters over the past five years have also approved tax and bond measures in Houston, Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, Tampa and Raleigh.

In August, voters in Phoenix rejected a Koch brothers-backed referendum that would have halted light-rail development.

In a May 1, 2018, referendum, Nashville proposed a $5.4 billion package that included five light-rail lines, four rapid bus corridors, one downtown tunnel, a new network of transit centers and paratransit improvements.

Overall costs, including operational costs and debt financing through 2032, were pegged at nearly $9 billion. The opposition campaign said cost variables raised credibility problems.

A 1-cent increase in the sales tax was the linchpin of the four-tax funding package. “The sales tax was the big one,” Accuardi said. Business, hotel and rental car taxes were also in play.

The energetic Barry was elected in fall 2015 on a pro-transit theme and quickly became the face of the campaign. But two months before the transit measure election, she resigned and pleaded guilty to felony theft of property over $10,000 related to her affair with a former police bodyguard.

“The mayor’s scandal and resignation just two months before the public vote was a big deal and it did impact the outcome of the election,” Accuardi said.

Other factors, though, set in motion a groundswell of opposition that included a get-out-the-vote thrust by the local chapter of the Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity.

Accuardi said Barry and her planning team didn’t stress test the proposal with residents or community leaders before its release. And while the campaign strategy depended on African-American support in a low-turnout spring referendum, the mayor’s office encountered pushback from black voters already worried about gentrification and displacement amid a regional affordable housing shortage.

“This was a missed opportunity that should have been the North Star of the project, but the mayor’s office and the Chamber of Commerce overlooked it,” Accuardi said.

By contrast, an African-American community activist, Jeff Carr, helped lead the opposition, which also included an anti-tax hike segment.

Barry’s office also ran a hurry-up offense, releasing the plan only seven months before the vote. Her planning team wanted to control the message given the defeat of a transit referendum three years earlier, right before she took office.

The coalition formed after Barry presented her plan, not before it.

“It was not a genuine coalition, it was a rubber-stamp coalition,” said Nora Kern, executive director of the local advocacy group Walk Bike Nashville. “There was an agenda the chamber ran. The consultants just nodded their heads and said, ‘Great, now we’ll go back to our jobs.’ ”

In Washington, Seattle-based nonprofit Transportation Choices Coalition has helped pass $74 billion worth of transit funding measures through 20 campaigns statewide, said its executive director, Alex Hudson. Obstacles have included anti-Seattle sentiment across parts of the state.

Transit advocacy can unite people from areas such as social justice and housing, according to Hudson. “It’s a uniquely intersectional issue,” she said.

Looking beyond the ballot measure is essential, said TransitCenter research director Steven Higashide.

“When you think about transit referenda, the important questions are not just how do you win, but how do you win in a way that leads to good transit? And how to you win a way that allows everyone to sustain the momentum after election day?”

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Infrastructure Nashville-Davidson County Metropolitan Government Transportation industry Tennessee