March 22, 2024 1:00pm

Bring on Mass Transit

Power Pollers voice overwhelming support for O’Connell transit referendum

Photo of Bruce Dobie
Nashville, TN Correspondent

In an overwhelming display of support for Mayor Freddie O’Connell’s November referendum on mass transit funding, 93% of survey respondents say Nashville’s traffic problems are such that we need to make “serious improvements in our transit system.”

And the hits for the O’Connell plan keep on coming.

• 69% say they like O’Connell’s more modest proposal than the massive $5.4 billion plan proposed by former Mayor Megan Barry back in 2017.

• 57% think a country-wide referendum put before voters will likely pass.

• This optimistic assessment comes in spite of the fact that very few Power Pollers use mass transit. Only 7% of Power Pollers use mass transit once a month and only 28% use it once a year.

The total cost of O’Connell’s transit plan, called “Choose How You Move,” is still in the process of being determined although some estimates being thrown around are in the range of $1 billion. The plan does not call for any light rail or tunnels beneath downtown as was proposed in the Barry plan. Emphasis instead is being placed on more sidewalks, traffic signals, bus service, and safety.

A total of 2,085 Power Pollers were surveyed in this March survey. 875 responded, for a response rate of 41.97%. Here are the specific questions and answers in this Power Poll.

Context I: The Basics of the Plan

Any consideration of Mayor O’Connell’s plan has to involve a discussion of the Barry plan which raged on some seven or eight years ago.

That proposal, called “Let’s Move Nashville,” was a highly ambitious plan that failed spectacularly, with 64% of voters saying they wanted none of it. It involved 24 miles of light rail, a two-mile tunnel snaking beneath downtown, 25 miles of rapid bus transit, and more.

The failure of Barry’s plan could not all be attributed to the plan itself. Out-of-town political consultants were hired by local opponents, money was raised to blast out daily emails in opposition, and well-honed attack media was launched in widespread fashion. And what appeared to finally stick a knife in the Barry plan was the fact that the former mayor, in the midst of it all, lost all political advantage when she was having to deal with the fact that she was having an indiscreet affair with her bodyguard.

This time around, Mayor O’Connell has shaved off the more controversial and expensive elements to the Barry plan (tunnel and the light rail), appealed to the vast majority of Nashvillians who are reluctant to forgo driving, and drilled hard into the thinking of so many Nashvillians who feel besieged by the sense that traffic here has gone beserk and seek something, ANYTHING, to help them in their daily travels. It is fair to say that O’Connell’s plan appears to be politically prescient and on track to gain significant support.

First, he has argued that we need to get some basics working better before we talk about adopting a whiz-bang and very costly system of light rail.

Those basics include building nearly 100 more miles of sidewalks, so that people can more easily just use their own two feet in order to get from Point A to Point B. Nashville has made significant sidewalk and greenway improvements in the last decade. But huge swaths of the city are perilous to pedestrians.

Next, he is saying, “Ok, if you drive, can we at least get the traffic lights working better?” It’s a simple and smart approach to appeal to the feeling we have all had of getting through one green light just in order to face a red one seconds later.

Finally, buses. The plan calls for 38 miles of bus rapid transit lanes on some of the more wildly busy roads in the city. Specifically, Nolensville Road, Dickerson Road, Gallatin Road and Murfreesboro Road are targeted for upgrades.

Context II: What the Vote Will Actually Be

Nashville has no dedicated system of funding for transit. Only four mayor cities in the country do not have such a funding stream: Hartford, Orlando, Memphis, and Nashville. The vote itself, therefore, will essentially create dedicated funding in order to finance the O’Connell plan.

And finally, the vote will be cast in a large turnout election: the presidential election. Set for Nov. 5, this will guarantee a large number of folks going to the polls. In our Democratic city, that would seem to favor those on the pro-transit side of the issue.

Thus far, opposition has yet to organize. But it will. Count on it.

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About Power Poll: Power Poll asks questions of the most powerful, influential people in U.S. cities. It is not a scientific survey. But because the people responding to the surveys comprise the leadership structure of their cities, the results afford a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of those in a position to make change. Power Poll is distinctly nonpartisan.

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