Feb 12, 2024 - News

Scoop: Nashville mayor to announce transit referendum

A WeGo bus downtown in 2019

A WeGo bus downtown in 2019. Photo: Eilon Paz/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Nashville Mayor Freddie O'Connell will officially announce in the coming days his plan to put a mass transit funding proposal on the November ballot, multiple sources tell Axios.

Why it matters: Voters will decide whether to expand Nashville's lagging mass transit system by paying higher sales tax — likely around a half-cent increase.

Details: Overall, O'Connell's proposal figures to be less downtown and tourist-focused than the 2018 mass transit proposal, which voters rejected.

  • The plan is likely to call for expanded bus service with some new dedicated rapid bus lanes and more sidewalks.

The intrigue: A major question is whether the proposal will also include a light rail line from the downtown area to the airport.

What we're watching: Metro Council must pass legislation in order to put the plan on the ballot. Expect a pro-transit political group, buoyed by the city's business and Democratic political establishment, to emerge in conjunction with the referendum push.

  • Pro-transit messaging will try to convince voters that passing the measure will help ease Nashville's brutal traffic problem.
  • Anti-transit strategy will likely point out that the current bus system is sparsely used by most Nashvillians, making a sales tax increase too steep a sacrifice.
  • The plan will be on the ballot in November when turnout is high. Pro-transit strategists will bank on liberal voters showing up for the presidential race also supporting transit.

Threat level: The expansion plan comes with political risk. For starters, about 64% voted against the 2018 proposal, so there's reason for trepidation.

  • The ballot measure's success hinges on voters who don't use the WeGo bus system being willing to pay a higher sales tax.
  • Failing to pass this measure would be another setback for Nashville's mass transit system, which badly lags behind peer cities like Denver and Charlotte.

Between the lines: Transportation policy is the foundation of O'Connell's political career. He got into public service when he was appointed to the MTA board of directors, and he spent much of his time on the Metro Council pushing to make Nashville a more walkable and bikeable city.

  • An O'Connell spokesperson declined to comment.
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