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Politics

Postmortem on Nashville’s failed transit referendum

There is a new report out this week from TransitCenter on Nashville’s failed transit referendum in 2018. Steve Cavendish at the Nashville Scene previewed some of the same themes in a story he wrote soon after the vote, but this new report goes into much more detail.

It’s a solid case study and holds important lessons for Austin and other cities. I started working for Mayor Barry in January 2017 so obviously I can’t claim to be completely objective about the report’s observations and conclusions. Nor, as a regular user of public transportation, can I be completely dispassionate about the outcome of the vote here, or what I hope transit proponents and local officials in other cities will learn from it. It’s been more than six months since I left the mayor’s office and I’m still not sure how to talk about my experience there without running into the risk of it coming across as sour grapes when it comes to things we didn’t accomplish.

But given the probability of Austin voting on something similar in the not-too-distant future I feel compelled to weigh in on a few things.

As a case study, the report stops short of what you would expect from a more academic treatment in a few key areas–I would have enjoyed a more thorough discussion of how a November vote with higher turnout could have affected the outcome or what the author gleaned from exit polls (assuming access was granted)–but those are very minor quibbles and don’t detract from its value as a case study.

To be clear, while I was a senior staff member, I was not on the core planning team for transit, as it’s referred to in the report. So, what I’ve taken away from the experience reflects only the views of somebody not “in the room” for much of the decision-making process.

That said, Austin, here’s my advice as you look ahead to your next election:

Think carefully about how you apply lessons learned from earlier votes. Your postmortem of a past result or campaign might have been right on target–at the time. If you can’t set aside your biases, or, worse, refuse to recognize the fact that you could have any–and we are all guilty of it–then make sure you have people in the room who have different biases.

Welcome users of the current transit system into the decision-making circle but don’t assume that all users will be supporters. If there’s one place in the report that starts to veer into a blind spot this is it in my opinion. Get on the bus and ask a few people if they’d rather be in a car driving alone to work, even if it meant sitting in soul-crushing traffic.

Get kids involved–and not just as campaign props. Empower them to help make decisions. Yes, many will be too young to vote, but that trope is less relevant in today’s media landscape, where teenagers can command the attention of world leaders. Transit may not be as jarring as gun violence in schools; however, it is about safety. It may not lead to the cover of Time, but it is about climate change.

I’m not sure how you get there but I think it’s pretty clear by now what happens when people hear the word tax and feel that they are being asked for $5 billion or more when nothing vital is at stake.

At least not for them.