Nashville Transit Plan Failure Shows Difficulty of Urban Reimagining


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Nashville bounced back from this. It can bounce back from the Koch Brothers. 


Very few cities were imagined and conceived in one (relatively) fell swoop. Sure, there were some that were built with the whole spread of the city imagined and engineered, but those are few in number and tend to turn out Weird, like the inhuman scale of Brasilia or the strange half-peasant-kitsch and half Nazarbayev-infected megalomania of Astana.

But despite the feverish pitches of cigar-chomping boosters, most cities tend to grow like we do: an odd accumulation of growth spurts and injuries, new experiences being tacked on to dim memories, aging at odd angles, sprinting or stooping with little rhyme or reason. And so they grow up strange, careful grids intersected maddeningly by old angled trails or riverine circumnavigations.

Because of this ad-hoc nature, any attempts to change them take titantic efforts. The act of reimagining a city is usually just that: an act of imagination, never quite realized.

We were reminded of that yesterday when Nashville, one of America’s most happening cities, tried to pass a hugely ambitious referendum that would have created a vast new public transit system, complete with light rail, express bus lanes, and more.

How’d it go? Well…

Voters in Nashville rejected a sweeping transit plan on Tuesday night by an overwhelming margin. The plan’s supporters got trounced. In the end, residents voted it down by a 2-to-1 margin.

Had it passed, Let’s Move Nashville—the boldest municipal transit plan in recent memory—would have launched five light-rail lines, one downtown tunnel, four bus rapid transit lines, four new crosstown buses, and more than a dozen transit centers around the city. Depending on how you do the math, the scheme would have cost $5.4 billion or more like $9 billion, funded by a raft of boosted local taxes. More than 44,000 voters across Metro Nashville’s Davidson County came out in favor of the referendum, with more than 79,000 voting against it.

So that’s certainly not great, if you like public transportation and want to get away from our choking reliance on cars. It certainly is a resounding defeat. It happened, according to smart observers (like the article linked to above) for a variety of reasons, some specific to Nashville and its immediate politics, and some that are more national, troubling, endemic, and entrenched.

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