Advocates in Austin and across the country watched closely as Nashville voters went to the polls last Tuesday to consider taking on nearly $9 billion in tax debt to bring light rail service to the city for the first time.
Few in or outside of the city anticipated defeat, let alone the crushing 64 percent to 36 percent margin.
“It took us five years to get to this point where we are today, and it’s going to take us five to 10 years to get back to this point,” Kelly Brockman, spokeswoman for Transit for Nashville told The Tennessean newspaper. “And it’s going to cost a lot more money.”
At the top of the many obituaries written was the scandal involving the transit plan’s number one supporter, swallowing up more than two months of the campaign leading up to the vote.
On Jan. 31, Mayor Megan Barry admitted to having an affair with her former Nashville Police Department bodyguard. On March 6, Barry resigned after she and the bodyguard pleaded guilty to felony theft of property, charges that came out of the investigation into their affair.
Barry’s interim successor, David Briley, also a staunch supporter of the plan, now faces a slate of 12 candidates in a special election on May 24, all of them on the record as opposing the plan.
For Jim Skaggs, an Austin entrepreneur who has for 20 years led the opposition to each and every one of the city’s votes on light rail, the Nashville vote was a bellwether. Taxpayers, he said, are beginning to recognize that technology and the result of modern urban planning “will make transit a skeleton of what it is today.”
“Their plan in Nashville was very similar to Project Connect (the current working transit proposal for Austin),” Skaggs told The Texas Monitor. “But while ridesharing like Uber and Lyft and driverless cars and all of the technology is moving transit forward, they’re going backwards, operating from past principles that are fast becoming obsolete.”
For Randy Clarke, the relatively new president and CEO of Austin’s transit company, Capital Metro, Nashville’s vote was an aberration tainted by a political upheaval no one could have seen coming. Where Skaggs sees similarities between Austin and Nashville, Clarke sees an Austin already with a light rail line, with an overall transit system that carries three times the number of people annually than the “other” Music City.
“I was surprised by the vote. I thought it was going to be razor thin, either way,” Clarke told The Texas Monitor. “Obviously, what happened with the mayor played a big role, but who am I to sit here in Austin and analyze how they ran their campaign? It would be disingenuous, almost improper.”
Notwithstanding the impact the mayoral scandal had on the race, there are elements of the Nashville plan and the political reaction to it that are similar to past transit votes in Austin and to the current planning for Project Connect which, as The Texas Monitor previously reported, envisions three new rail lines at a total cost of more than $10.5 billion.
Nashville was starting from scratch with light rail, proposing a $5.4 billion plan to create five rail lines, four dedicated rapid bus lanes and other bus system upgrades. Proponents estimated the cost to operate and maintain the system would push the total cost to almost $9 billion, a number not on the actual ballot.
To pay for the system, voters would have had to agree to a sales tax that would have become the second highest in the country and to increases in business, excise, hotel and car rental taxes.
The proposal split the vote between established residents in the neighborhoods and newcomers moving into downtown; and conservatives and liberals, according to a Tennessean analysis.
In the end, the experts concluded its voters rejected the steep sales tax increase, including African-American voters, who had in the past enthusiastically supported transit improvement spending.
In that rejection was a recognition that the likely beneficiaries of rail were wealthier downtown dwellers and not working class people looking for inexpensive transportation to and from work, Skaggs said.
“What went on in Nashville is what you’re seeing here in Austin,” Skaggs said. “The purpose of transit planners today is not to provide another option, but to get people out of their cars when they should be focusing on providing the best possible transit for those who don’t have any alternative.”
This is why Clarke says Project Connect planners are thinking regionally, rather than in Austin alone. And it is why Clarke, the former deputy chief operating officer for the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority who took over in January, has refused to favor rail over bus during deliberations.
“I’m not saying there is going to be rail in those corridors,” Clarke said. “I’m not going to let the mode of transportation wag the dog. But I am a transit believer and I believe Austin is past the tipping point. We need to do something.”
In the wake of Nashville, however, two of the largest cities in Texas have decided to slow down and think a little harder about the need for rail. On Monday, Houston’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), known locally as METRO, decided not to place any spending measures on the November ballot while they continue working on a long-term rail and bus plan that started at the beginning of last year — at the time its last rail expansion was completed.
MTA last got voter approval for transit borrowing in 2003, when voters approved $640 million in bonds later applied to the $2.1 billion it took to complete the expansion.
In March, The Dallas Morning News editorial board, departing from years of rail boosterism, wrote a second editorial calling on Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) to shift its attention back to buses (Here is the first, written in November).
“DART attracted fewer riders last year than the year before, and there’s little reason to believe this year will be any different, despite rising populations and a thriving economy where jobs are plentiful,” the editorial reads.
“In truth, bus ridership has been falling for years, largely because DART has aggressively re-jiggered its routes to funnel more riders onto its growing network of trains. The loss in bus ridership was nearly nine times greater than the gain in rail ridership.”
Data kept by Federal Transit Administration shows that overall transit ridership is down everywhere in the country. In March, ridership declined in every one of the top 38 urbanized areas in America, including Austin, which was off by 19.5 percent and Houston, down 2.9 percent.
And while Clarke is bullish on Seattle’s rail ridership growth — it was up by 6.5 percent in March — it has come at the expense of bus ridership so that overall transit ridership there was off by .5 percent.
“I think it needs to be considered an emergency,” Jarrett Walker, a transit planner for Houston’s MTA told The Washington Post. “When we don’t share space efficiently, we get in each other’s way. And that is a problem for the livelihood, the viability, the livability and the economy of a city… It means more traffic, more congestion.”
What it means to Skaggs, as the Post story points out, is that the shift to more convenient transportation alternatives like Uber and Lyft is likely to accelerate.
Having spent his first two months on a listening tour, riding the Austin-to-Leander rail line and on buses, Clarke said the public in Austin recognizes the need for expanded transit.
In an op-ed for the Austin American-Statesman on April 13, Clarke called Project Connect “a multigenerational investment in our region’s future.”
There is so far no history of citywide support for big transit spending. In 2000, when proponents asked for $1.9 billion for a 52-mile light rail system, with one of the lines cutting through the heart of downtown, voters rejected it by less than one percentage point. And while voters in 2004 got behind the $90 million for the current line, they crushed the $1.4 billion bond that included $600 million for a second line in 2014.
Clarke said Project Connect planners are working hard to offer a plan voters can support by sometime in 2020.
“For the first time ever we are going to create a true regional plan,” Clarke said. “If there is a takeaway from Nashville, it’s that the people have to be truly invested in the plan.”
The takeaway for Skaggs is that transit planners refuse to absorb the takeaways of Nashville because transit is what they do. “And if it looks like this thing is going to go to a vote, know this: I’ll do everything in my power to prevent this stupidity from happening in Austin.”
Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].