What Should We Expect from Transit $ in the Near Term?

Nashville’s Formerly Proposed Bus Line

We live in interesting times. An unpredictable president is joined by a Senate and a House under control of the party with which he has aligned himself. Yet, it’s a party which he has taken stances at odds with their typical beliefs and priorities. He has proposed massive spending on infrastructure which could mean very different things depending on how infrastructure is defined and where priorities are placed.

At the state level, Tennessee is, and has been for some time, controlled by the Republican Party. Governor Haslam has introduced a six cent hike (over three years) in the gas tax to fund infrastructure improvements. Last year an attempt was made by Republicans to specifically limit use of those funds to providing for better car transportation, disallowing its use for mass-transit, cycling or pedestrian improvements. That provision is not currently included in the state legislation, though what percentage of those funds might be allocated for any transportation other than automobiles is not clear.

That there is a need seems to rise beyond disagreement. Our infrastructure – not only transportation, but electric grid and water systems – is crumbling after years of neglect. We have built faster than our ability to maintain. In Atlanta I-85 is closed after a fire erupted beneath it. Just yesterday 1-20 was closed through Atlanta due to a gas line problem beneath it which caused a section to crumble.

South End of the Broadway Viaduct, Knoxville, January 2017

We also are seeing a dramatic increase in pedestrian deaths. In 2016 there was an eleven percent increase in pedestrian deaths on roads and the figure represented a twenty-two percent increase over 2014. In a recent ranking of the deadliest cites for pedestrians, Memphis finished in the top ten, with Florida running away with the state prize. The conclusion was that most of the pedestrians killed are poor, elderly and people of color who have no choice but to walk in dangerous places because of a lack of public transportation to take them to jobs and necessities. A recent court ruling could have long-term implications on the direction cities take when it ruled that NYC is liable for injuries on streets without traffic calming.

Governor Haslam’s proposed gas tax has progressed though all committees and appears to be prepared to receive a vote on the floor of both the Tennessee Senate and House. A group of Republican House leaders including Beth Harwell, Glen Casada and Ryan Williams, however, are making a late attempt to shift the bill’s funding to state surplus as opposed to the gas tax. A provision of the bill also allows local municipalities to increase local taxes to fund mass transportation. Others have pointed out that the absence of specific language regarding mass transit in the bill makes it likely that none of the money will go in that direction.

Bikes and Blooms, Outdoor Knoxfest, TN Valley Bikes and Dogwood Arts, Knoxville, April 2015

To be sure, there are ongoing efforts to continue the kinds of efforts we’ve often discussed on this blog: A recent article in The Hill, an influential conservative D.C. publication implores congress to work with cities and towns to solve their unique transportation needs while encouraging better land-use policies which will ultimately reduce demand on infrastructure. Boston recently announced a commitment to become the most walkable city in America. Some editorials are stating clearly we do no need more roads, rather fewer, and extolling the federal government not to use any new money on new roads.

Still, these efforts are scattered and mostly found in cities. The Republican Platform on which Trump was elected, though he may or may not adhere to its tenets, was openly hostile toward mass transit with Republicans calling it, “an inherently local affair that serves only a small portion of the population, concentrated in six big cities.” Additionally, the platform calls for no federal involvement, specifically, in, “bike-share programs, sidewalks, recreational trails, landscaping, and historical renovations,” arguing that money for these community game-changers should come from “other sources.”

With Elaine Chao recently named to be Transportation Secretary, she has already been lobbied by Republicans to stop mass transit efforts around the country. She recently delayed funding for modernizing the commuter rail line between San Jose and San Francisco, putting a project that was funded and seemed certain into jeopardy. Since that move, “State lawmakers in Minnesota are appealing to Chao to sink Minneapolis’s Southwest Light Rail, a 15-mile route between downtown the western suburbs expected to draw about 35,000 weekday passengers.” State Senator David Osmek wants the $929 million in previously approved grants diverted from the project, even if it means his state loses the nearly $1 billion.

Vol Line Trolley, Knoxville, August 2014

We’ve had a similar drama play out in Tennessee when Mayor Karl Dean had lined up funding for a rapid-transit bus and had it killed by Republican state legislators funded by the Koch Brothers, “Americans for Prosperity,” group. Officially listed as a social welfare lobbying group which, “doesn’t have to identify who gives it cash, how much it has received.” Beth Harwell was also involved in the effort to stop the funding for Nashville’s transportation project and the same Koch group was behind the effort to prevent medicaid expansion in the state.

So, why would one party be opposed to a type of transportation? The split relatively mirrors the split nationally and in our state between the more Democratically controlled cities and the increasingly Republican-led state governments. Mass transit more often benefits cities and representatives of rural areas have no need for the voters in the cities. It is consistent with the ideological struggle in which the cities are more progressive and the more conservative state governments attempt to control their left-ward bent.

So, what are our prospects of improved pedestrian, cycling and mass transit facilities. Probably not good. Light rail for Knoxville? An expanded bus system? Shelters at bus stops and an increased rate of expansion in bike lane development? Here’s hoping I’m reading the tea leaves incorrectly, but it appears if any of those things happen, big or small, they will happen in the face of opposition from the state and federal level.


  1. Is anyone else simply fed up with the lobbyist inspired, knee-jerk opposition to everything that has any association with “public” or “communal” welfare? Whatever happened to the “we the people” and the common good??

  2. Unfortunately it seems that anything resembling common sense is shot down in favor of interests that seem anything but for the common good..

    Another fine example:

  3. I note with interest the recent high court ruling that NY municipalities are liable for injuries on streets without traffic calming. While funding is indeed needed to make our city more pedestrian and bicycle friendly, much can still be done on a small budget. A case in point: If there is blood on the street at the intersection of Henley and Blount (the intersection at the South end of the Henley Street Raceway Bridge) it seems clear that the city or TDOT will be legally culpable. That intersection has the potential of 12 different turn directions, long crossing distances, no walk lights, and unbelievably ONLY ONE marked crosswalk (where 4 are needed), and no bike path and all this is exacerbated by the sidewalk now blocked due to construction on the site between the Bridges. I challenge any responsible public authority to walk or bike the area day or night and experience the alarming exposure of this intersection.

    • This is a very important post. I’ve mentioned this in previous posts as well. The intersection is deadly for pedestrians; yet, no one seems to care. There are other similar spots, such as the Broadway/Jackson Avenue “five points” intersection where there are NO pedestrian crosswalks or signals. Appalling.

  4. In my FL county, a comprehensive transportation referendum initiative was soundly defeated in 2014 by an organized coalition of conservative activists and retirees who, in the latter group, are disinterested in leaving a legacy for the area to which they moved. An activist leader actually claimed that the reason our buses have solar-shielded windows was not to reduce fuel usage (re: A/C) but so people couldn’t peer inside them and see the supposed low ridership. Whether or not this person truly believed her contention, that’s the mentality blocking our progress. Likely, on the day we suffer The Mother Of All Gridlocks in our private cars, she’ll be the first to complain.

  5. Oren Yarbrough says:

    I was fortunate to work within earshot of the team that tried to bring Nashville the BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) a few years back and the sad thing with that project was that I learned that if you have a majority of people who love a project, but a vocal & wealthy few who hate the project…it will ultimately fail. The wealthy business owners of West End Ave absolutely despised the reduction in lane width and inability to have a dedicate turning lane for large portions of the strip. Vanderbilt even had professors step into the discussion and argue that the project would create a massive cluster of messy traffic, something that only scared the public despite a dedicated team of professionals that argued the opposite.

    Sadly, the nail in the coffin for the project was an election cycle that just added fuel to the fire because the local GOP running for election used the BRT as an example of wasteful spending that had no benefit for the actual citizens of Nashville. The federal grant offered by Obama to help fund a large portion of the project was highlighted and misrepresented by GOP candidates as just Democrats throwing more money at something without thinking it through first. This could not have been further from the truth…but the damage had been done and it was successful in its two goals. Kill the project and elect GOP candidates.
    The one part of the project I love to highlight to people and you can even go see for yourself is the amazing renaissance that East Nashville experienced along the proposed route. Dozens of large projects and even more private homes within blocks of the route were flipped and renovated and built in preparation for the BRT and even though the line didn’t happen I think that it is remarkable to showcase how even the idea of mass transit can be an economic boon to a neighborhood or city.

  6. Art Wagner says:

    I’ve always found it a bit ironic that the anti-infrastructure, anti-transportation conservative Republicans are huge fans of Ayn Rand. Yes, the same wacko, objectivist conservative Ayn Rand who, in “Atlas Shrugged,” glorified the majesty and “heroic” achievement of railroads, great tunnels and bridges, and using new technologies and imagination to improve transportation. Unfortunately, the anti-transportation Republicans aren’t very heroic at all and care nothing for the economic benefits and progress that rapid modern transportation brings to everyone, instead of just a few. A mobile lower and middle class makes it very difficult for political segregation to succeed.

  7. Thanks for this informative article and helping us understand how different priorities often depend on location. Mass transit is essential for any diverse population that includes people who cannot or will not own vehicles.

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