THE mid-November rain patters away on the windshields of thousands of cars locked motionless along I-40 West. The rows of asphalt flood with light – an ominous glow of red blanketing one side and the glaring florescent yellow flooding the four lanes opposite the waist-high divider wall. Through the glass windows, a sea of Nashville residents stares despondently ahead into the endless wave of traffic, budging ever so slightly as time seems to freeze in the deadlock of 5 pm Monday traffic.
The situation is a frustrating reality of living in a city filled with thousands of new inhabitants every year. Nashville is frequently cited as one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States. Still, anyone living here can tell its infrastructure hasn’t kept pace with the rapid population increases of the past decade. The eye-rolling commuters make their way to and from work, and many begin to wonder why it seems their only option is crawling along this jammed freeway day after day as their painfully repetitive Spotify playlist spins on in the background.
But even more aggravating than the endless hours stuck in Nashville traffic can be trying to understand why it’s there in the first place.
Why is traffic so bad in Nashville? And why is there barely any public transportation?
Well if you ask the New York Times, you’ll hear how Nashville was begging for increased public transit, but the Koch brothers and their secretly funded conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity came in to corrupt the city and overturn the will of the people.
Ask Fox News and National Review, and you’ll hear how the pro-transit campaign was just a sham cover-up for increased gentrification, unfair taxation, and an overstep of government authority. Who needs public transportation when the future will be autonomous cars, anyways?
Or maybe check the tabloid buzz – it really all comes down to the juicy sex scandal between former mayor Megan Barry and her hunky police bodyguard. If Barry hadn’t been sneaking off for two years on the job, we would totally have a light rail system in place by now.
So what the hell is actually going on when it comes to getting around Nashville?
Let’s get curious.
Turn the clock back to the spring of 2018. David Briley is the recently sworn-in mayor of Nashville. His appointment comes off the heels of the previous mayor Megan Barry resigning due to a sex scandal and pleading guilty to felony theft of $10,000 of city funds spent on personal trips. Before this point, she was enjoying upwards of 70% approval ratings and had just introduced a new public transportation plan.
The transportation proposal would be the largest in Nashville’s history. It involved around $9 billion of funding to install 26 miles of light rail, four new rapid electric crosstown bus lines, improved service on existing buses, 19 transit centers, and a suite of improvements to signals, sidewalks, and bike infrastructure.
Early projections showed that a general majority of voters supported the plan – particularly younger voters living in the heart of the city.
But somewhere between Megan Barry’s March resignation and the early May vote, things changed. The transit referendum was shot down in a landslide loss – 64 percent to 36 percent.
National media quickly caught wind of the vote, and theories started to spread. The Times ran with a story exposing the influence of conservative moguls David and Charles Koch in the election. The Koch brothers hold multi-billion dollar stakes in industries profiting from more cars on the road. They own the fifth-largest ethanol conglomerate in the world to go along with significant amounts of rubber, asphalt, and seat-belt manufacturing companies. Through their nonprofit advocacy group Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers continued their nation-wide attack on public transit by funding targeted community organizing across Nashville.
The story feels familiar to many left-leaning audiences. Prominent billionaires come in, dump a bunch of money into an election, and ensure a vote goes their way. They keep making more money than they know what to do with, and everyone else suffers in the meantime.
While the Koch empire wields far too disproportionate power across the country, there were a few holes in the New York Times depiction.
For one, public record states the entirety of the anti-transit campaign spent about $1.3 million to rally against the plan. The pro-transit side? About $2.9 million.
Also, many low-income residents and people of color in Nashville were against the project. All four people of color running for mayor the coming year were against the referendum. In one of the largest African-American voting districts in Nashville, citizens voted against the transit project 75 percent to 25 percent, and the equity coalition People’s Alliance for Transit, Housing, and Employment also came out against the plan.
The problem wasn’t that Nashville was trying to implement public transit – it’s that it was doing it in a way that would only benefit the few at the cost of many. The plan featured five light rails all running almost exclusively in the densely populated areas of downtown – areas already skyrocketing in rent, pushing lower-income people out. The proposal would be funded via a sales tax increase that would give Nashville the highest sales tax in the country. Sales taxes disproportionately burden low-income people as a larger portion of their total income goes to everyday purchases.
We need increased public transportation in Nashville. But more importantly, we need equity-based transit in the city. Light rail with fewer lines but longer reach into more diverse areas along with similarly routed electric buses must be paired with zoning laws guaranteeing the preservation of affordable housing. The funding for these projects cannot come at the disproportionate cost of low-income residents but should be upheld by the businesses and corporations who serve to benefit from increased worker connectivity. Special interests from those like the Koch brothers must be kept out of Nashville’s politics and we should demand full transparency behind those laying the groundwork for our city.
A new transit project should be coming up again soon in Nashville city politics. Keep your eyes peeled for what it looks like, what’s included, and what might be missing. And stay curious.