One of Nashville’s steps toward a new mass transit plan will be to revisit the strategy adopted two years ago, when city and regional officials endorsed what’s known as “nMotion.”
The central ideas are still relevant and could be the fodder for a new round of community meetings — and even one of the fiercest opponents of the failed referendum, Jeff Obafemi Carr, gave nod to the work that preceded it.
“The entire plan is not bad,” he said on the night voters rejected it. “It had community engagement. It had NashvilleNext. It had nMotion. What happened was there was a gap between neighborhoods and downtown leadership. And what happened was, people felt they were left out.”
The references that night to NashvilleNext and nMotion — largely absent from earlier debates — hearken to two crucial Metro documents. NashvilleNext guides land use and development decisions and nMotion is the Metro Transit Authority’s 25-year transportation strategy.
Despite the rejected referendum — which was a specific set of projects and one method of transit funding — nMotion is still in effect. And officials have pointed to its rigorous research and quantity of community engagement when saying, recently, that the defeated referendum doesn’t mean the city should start again from scratch.
“Saying we have to blow everything up and start at square one, I absolutely don’t believe that is the case,” said Metro Transit Authority CEO Steve Bland on the night of the vote. “What’s been done up to this point has been informed by not only hard information, but the input of literally thousands of people in Middle Tennessee.”
Bland said community input will be sought, but he stood by nMotion when asked about some of the alternative plans floated in the final days before the referendum.
“To be frank, a lot of the plans I’ve seen don’t really have much thought put behind them,” he said. “They’re not based in fact. They’re not based in technology. They’re based in wishful thinking.”
So what does nMotion encompass?
The plan (and its series of studies on specific subjects) provides a detailed, 25-year timeline of improved bus service, development of rapid options including light rail, and more frequent regional bus service.
In many ways, nMotion reads like the 55-page plan rejected in the referendum. nMotion outlined four light rail lines and crosstown bus routes, for example. But there were differences, as nMotion includes a commuter train connecting Nashville and Clarksville, and regional buses that would use the shoulders of the interstates — two ideas that remain in discussion.
And there’s no downtown tunnel in nMotion.
Also absent — intentionally, officials said — was a specific funding source for all of the improvements. The estimate for everything in the plan was nearly $6 billion in capital costs over 25 years, plus a large increase in annual operations costs.
In 2016, when the boards of the MTA and the closely-linked Regional Transit Authority adopted nMotion, one of the declared “next steps” was to assemble a new approach on funding, and the groundwork was being laid for some form of tax increase.
“The regions that have successfully done this have been able to demonstrate: This is what you’re going to get for your money, this is how you’re going to pay for it, and this is when you will see benefit,” was how MTA CEO Steve Bland described the funding future at the time.
Then in 2017, one funding option became possible.
After an intense battle at the capitol — which included lobbying by then-mayor Megan Barry and other mayors in the region — state lawmakers passed the IMPROVE Act. That move authorized cities to increase six types of local taxes for transit.
“As anybody that lives around Middle Tennessee knows, long term, we have to come up with a bigger and better idea about how we’re going to make life flow smoother around here,” Gov. Bill Haslam said when signing the act.
He also gave a shout out to Barry, and how “politics” didn’t get in the way of the act. It was a moment that led one national publication to suggest the hardest fight was over for Nashville, and that greatly expanded mass transit was likely.
Instead, Councilwoman Angie Henderson said, there was a failure, close to the finish line, in how exactly pieces of nMotion and the proposed tax increases were combined and sent to voters for approval.
“I always argued that this plan was not the best expression of the good work that was done for nMotion,” she said.
Henderson would have liked to see a more measured increase of transit services, beginning with buses. She describes the service at current funding levels as “anemic” — and would support some added investment.
“So you do need a dedicated investment, in my view, to grow your ridership, sustain it, elevate the quality of your bus system, and then it’s not a bridge so far for people,” she said. “Right now, in our car culture with anemic bus service, you say to folks, ‘We want to do five corridors of light rail,’ that is a bridge too far for people.”
Her peer, Councilman Freddie O’Connell, proposes a sort of countywide reunion tour for nMotion.
“Taking nMotion back out to community centers throughout the city, back to libraries and schools throughout the city, and bringing people to any kind of consensus that we might be able to get to,” he said.
For O’Connell, the mantra of those who defeated the transit referendum was that they were “for transit, but not this plan,” — so he’d like to listen to residents again, as during nMotion.
“We still have to have high expectations as a city,” he said. “There is no city that is thriving in the way that Nashville is without some kind of high-capacity means for moving its people efficiently. So that’s either bus rapid transit or light rail.”