Mayor David Briley took office less than two months before a referendum on a $5.4 billion capital spending plan to radically change Nashville’s transit options and on the cusp of annual budget deliberations. After a decade of unprecedented growth and marquee projects like the Music City Center and the landing of a Major League Soccer team, Briley is expected to provide a steady hand and thoughtful guidance for Nashville. We sat down with him to chat transit and why he believes Nashvillians will really leave their cars.
It’s harder than ever to get around Nashville. Why don't we just expand and build more roads?
Traffic is at a point where it’s more than inconvenient. It’s having an effect on people’s lives every day. It affects what jobs people can get to and what time people have to leave the office to pick up their kids, and it also affects where people can live. So access to transportation is really access to opportunities, and something’s got to change. People’s ability to get ahead shouldn’t be limited by their access to reliable transportation.
But we can’t build our way out of more traffic with more roads, which only increases traffic in the long run, and it doesn’t help the neediest people in Nashville. With 1 million people moving to the region, we have to make the most of the roads, highways and bridges we have. That’s why the Let’s Move Nashville plan is so important. It’s going to bring new and expanded transit to every neighborhood. Within the first two years, there will be 200 new local buses on city streets, and the system will run 20 hours a day and run more frequently, so people can get to work early in the day or get home after hours. As ridership grows, we’re going to build new rapid bus routes and light rail to move even more people so that Nashville’s growth doesn’t have to mean gridlock.
People are worried about Nashville becoming less affordable. How will transit help?
We’ve already seen the effects of doing nothing: The cost of living is going up and people are paying more for housing and transportation. The Let’s Move plan is an investment in Nashville’s future. Its focus is to create more affordable, accessible communities. We will establish targets for affordable housing and support small businesses on the corridors so that we can preserve what we love about Nashville in the first place. Giving people affordable, accessible transportation options is one of the greatest services a city can provide. The transit plan will include free and reduced fares for low-income people and seniors, for people with mobility issues, and free bus passes for students.
This will supplement an existing program, developed with the Metro Homelessness Commission, that provides passes to people experiencing homelessness. They’ve distributed cards to 253 people in the last six months, for a combined total of 26,000 trips to date, including to jobs, social services and shelters. This is an investment in people, and 77 of those 253 — 30 percent — are now in permanent housing. More generally, by giving people the option of getting around without having to own and maintain a car — or buy a second car — we can help significantly bring down the cost of living for thousands of Nashvillians.
Can Nashville afford to invest $5.4 billion in construction required to build the system when we have so many other issues?
Transportation is expensive. A car costs $9,000 a year in expenses. The cost for car payments, insurance and gas can eat up 25 percent of the take-home pay. When you add rent or mortgage payments, half of your salary is gone just to stay afloat. Transportation cost is one of the two top reasons people drop out of college. Transportation is one of the most important things to improve if you’re concerned about affordability. So when we say we want to give Nashvillians better transportation options, that’s not just because we want to make it easier to get from place to place. It removes barriers to opportunity and lets them save money for more important things.
Knowing how sensitive cost is for everyone in Nashville, we worked hard to design a plan we could afford. Bringing transit to Nashville will cost the average person about $5 a month at first and $10 a month in the end, and we’ll invest that in a network that will last a lifetime. About half the tax will be paid by visitors to Davidson County, but we’ll see 100 percent of the benefits. This is an investment that moves us forward. It will affect not just the city we live in today but the city we leave our children and grandchildren.
Nashville is a driving town. Why do you think people will take transit?
Yes, a lot of people drive in Nashville, there’s no question about it. But the bigger issue is that there’s not really a choice for a lot of people. In some parts of the city, you need a car for every trip — to go to work, to go shopping for groceries, to drop off the kids at school. Even in places where we already have bus service, it’s often not frequent or reliable enough to get people out of their cars.
But what we have seen is that when we provide frequent, reliable and safe service, ridership goes up. On the Blue Circuit route serving North Nashville, ridership almost doubled. In the two years since we expanded bus service on Nolensville Pike, 19 percent more people are riding. When we provide good, reliable service, people ride.
A lot of people still won't take buses or trains. Why should they vote for transit?
Transit isn’t just about buses and trains. The plan also includes improved sidewalks in neighborhoods, which helps create more walkable communities. It includes better intersections and safer crossings, so even if you’re driving, it will be safer and easier. And think about your family and friends. Ten percent of Davidson County residents are seniors, and 11.6 percent have disabilities. Add in school-aged children and one-car families, and there is a huge population who need more affordable, reliable transit options. The plan also includes on-demand transportation for those who need it and to help fill in the last mile between a transit station and people’s homes.
And companies looking to relocate are increasingly looking for transit-accessible cities for their workforces. The cities we compete with are stepping up their transit game, and Nashville needs to do the same. That’s good for our economy and for everybody who lives and works here. You don’t have to ride transit to enjoy its benefits.