Apr 22, 2024 - Politics

Mayor O'Connell unveils his transportation plan

Mayor Freddie O'Connell

Mayor Freddie O'Connell meets with media after unveiling his transportation improvement plan last week. Photo: Nate Rau/Axios

Nashville Mayor Freddie O'Connell's plan to overhaul the city's transportation network seeks to dramatically expand bus service, add miles of new sidewalks, shorten commutes and bolster safety for pedestrians and cyclists.

Why it matters: The plan, which O'Connell calls Choose How You Move, is his solution to an issue that has vexed generations of city leaders.

  • It will require a sales tax increase that is likely to appear on the November ballot.

State of play: Nashville is one of four of the 50 largest U.S. cities without dedicated funding for mass transit, which advocates say has clogged highways and hampered growth.

  • Because many federal grants require dedicated local funding for transportation, Nashville misses out on federal money for upgrades.
  • But if the plan is approved, the city would be in line for over $1.4 billion in federal funding for transportation over the next 15 years, the mayor's office says.

Between the lines: At a kickoff event at the Southeast Community Center in Antioch Friday, O'Connell sold the proposal as a way to ease the rising cost of living and improve quality of life for everyday Nashvillians.

  • O'Connell is asking residents to agree to a half-cent sales tax increase to pay for the plan. Although the initial price tag for the plan is $3.1 billion, his administration declined to immediately release a larger cost estimate that will also appear on the ballot in November.

What he's saying: A recent Forbes analysis of drive times, public transit and walkability ranked Nashville as the hardest commute in the country.

  • To demonstrate how the plan would help, the mayor's office says a drive down perpetually congested Murfreesboro Pike would be 12 minutes shorter if the proposal is approved.
  • "We will all benefit from Choose How You Move, whether anyone takes the bus or not," O'Connell told a crowd of supporters at Friday's event.

During his announcement, O'Connell outlined specific improvements proposed under Choose How You Move.

🚶 Sidewalks: A lack of sidewalks has headlined the list of neighborhood complaints in Nashville for decades. O'Connell says his plan will address that by building 86 miles of sidewalks.

  • The result will be a 50% increase in the number of walkable neighborhoods.

🚦 Signals: Acknowledging that most Nashvillians don't take the bus, easing traffic congestion for everyone is a priority in Choose How You Move.

  • O'Connell proposes building or modernizing 592 traffic signals. The improved signals will use technology to manage traffic flow. A new traffic management center can analyze where congestion is the worst and make changes to signal patterns in real time.

🚌 Bus service: The plan would add bus rapid transit — which is super-fast bus service synched to traffic signals — on busy corridors such as Murfreesboro Pike, Nolensville Pike and Gallatin Pike. Some of the rapid buses will travel on dedicated lanes, avoiding car traffic.

  • O'Connell proposes to build 12 transit centers and 17 park-and-ride facilities for commuters.
  • Choose How You Move would increase total bus service by nearly 80%, according to the mayor's office.

⚠️ Safety: Nashville has been plagued by pedestrian deaths and unsafe intersections. In response, the proposal seeks to make the necessary safety improvements at 25 intersections and 78 miles of the most dangerous stretches of Nashville streets.

By not disclosing the larger price tag that will appear on the ballot, the O'Connell administration kicked the can on the most likely source of political criticism.

What we're watching: According to an outline of the plan, the initial cost estimate is $3.1 billion. However, that figure doesn't include additional costs that will also be disclosed in the actual ballot language.

  • Kevin Crumbo, O'Connell's top finance adviser, says an audit of the proposed financing will be conducted and the ballot's dollar figure will be released in the coming weeks.

By the numbers: Raising sales tax by half a cent comes out to 25 cents for every $50 a person spends. O'Connell's administration estimates it would cost most Nashvillians about $70 per year.

  • He touted the fact that 60% of Davidson County sales tax collections come from non-residents — either tourists or business people who commute to work here.

The intrigue: Prior to O'Connell's speech on Friday, an immigrant rights advocate, a union leader, a transit activist, a North Nashville resident and a college educator spoke in favor of the plan, foreshadowing the political coalition he hopes will make the referendum a success.

  • O'Connell's transition team suggested the measure go on the ballot in an election year when turnout, especially among Democrats, is the highest.

Yes, but: Just six years ago, voters demonstratively rejected a transportation improvement plan. Even so, armed with new polling, O'Connell's team begins this referendum effort with tremendous optimism.

  • O'Connell says his plan comes with significantly more community input and with more immediate impact on residents than the 2018 proposal.

The bottom line: In a preview of his sales pitch, O'Connell said that for the cost of putting an extra quarter in the jar with each visit to Target or Kroger, residents will get "easier access to a school, park, library, grocery store, small business" and more mass transit.

  • "I think being able to demonstrate the clear benefit is going to make the cost palatable," he says.

What's next: The state comptroller, Metro Council and Davidson County Election Commission must sign off on elements of the plan before it is officially on the ballot.

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