Feb 16, 2024 - News

Mayor O'Connell announces transportation funding push

Illustration of a pedestrian crossing sign with a dollar sign.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

Nashville Mayor Freddie O'Connell announced Thursday he is moving forward with a transportation funding plan, which voters will have the chance to approve in a referendum on the November ballot.

  • "We're a big city, and it's time to act like one," O'Connell said in a news conference at the historic Metro courthouse.

Why it matters: Nashvillians deal with congested interstates, neighborhoods without sidewalks and erratic bus service on a daily basis. O'Connell says a dedicated source of funding is needed to address those problems.

Details: The announcement was light on specifics. He didn't identify the total price tag or the funding sources, though a sales tax increase of about a half-cent is likely.

  • He said the plan will feature more bus service, new sidewalks and modernized traffic signals.

Of note: O'Connell indicated the plan won't include any light rail, which has been discussed as a possibility for years.

What's next: O'Connell formed two advisory committees and said he wants feedback from the public and from Metro Council members.

  • He hopes to present a proposal for a financial audit by the end of March, at which point the ballot measure will go to the council to consider.
  • If the council signs off, the power will shift to voters to approve the plan.

What he's saying: In an interview with Axios on Wednesday, O'Connell said the city has spent plenty of time studying the idea of dedicated funding for transportation. He pointed to "70-plus transportation plans" and "65,000-plus points of input" on those plans.

  • "I don't think we need to go back to the drawing board. We've gotten a lot of professional input and a lot of community input."
  • O'Connell said community feedback will be key in the next six weeks.
  • "We're not starting from a blank canvas, but we're also not starting from a point of telling everyone, 'The paint's dry, don't touch it.'"

The announcement triggers a months-long political campaign to persuade voters.

Reality check: The last two ambitious attempts at improving transportation in Nashville failed. The Amp, a bus rapid line connecting West Nashville to East Nashville, never came to fruition after Mayor Karl Dean pitched it in 2014.

  • Then, in 2018, voters soundly rejected a transit funding plan pitched by Mayor Megan Barry, who resigned amid a scandal prior to the vote.
  • Since increasing sales tax is likely to be the key funding source, O'Connell will likely face opposition from fiscal conservatives and anti-tax groups.

O'Connell says support for transportation funding has grown in the six years since the last vote.

  • "Transit has only become more popular and the need for it has only become more urgent," he said.

Zoom out: There's also a sense around Metro government that a property tax increase will be coming in the next few years, although O'Connell said there won't be one proposed in his upcoming budget.

  • "I think this is exactly the year to focus on core city services. We need people to trust Metro in this moment."

Between the lines: O'Connell got his start in government service as a member of the WeGo board of directors. Nashville is one of only four of the top 50 cities in the nation without dedicated transit funding, according to a study by Think Tennessee.

  • He rejected the suggestion that his plan would amount to a small bite of the apple compared to the 2018 proposal, which featured light rail and an underground tunnel downtown.
  • "To do this at all is pretty ambitious, especially for a city that's 20 years behind," O'Connell said. "This is a tool for affordability and mobility. This is a tool for congestion mitigation and access to the city, particularly for people still experiencing food deserts, or managing child care issues, or working on a shift that isn't 9 to 5."
  • "My interest is in proposing a plan that's meaningful and really moves the needle quickly from a service level standpoint so you're not waiting 10 years to see 24/7/365 improvements."
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