On The Road: Mayor Barry Talks Transit On MTA Bus

Posted at 6:21 PM, Feb 15, 2018

In an exclusive NewsChannel 5 interview, Mayor Megan Barry took Traffic Anchor Rebecca Schleicher down one of Nashville's busiest corridors: Nolensville Pike.

If you ask Nashville's Mayor, it's not even a question.

"I think we are at a crossroads. Nashville voters have an opportunity to choose the future that they want," Mayor Barry said.

She's all in on the $5.4 billion transit plan. It's the biggest, most expensive project in the city's history.

"It's a bold plan. We can't shy away from that," she said. "The one thing voters have said repeatedly is don't do something small because we want something that's big and comprehensive and is actually going to make a difference."

You won't catch anyone -- supporters or opponents -- arguing the plan isn't bold. The eventual cost, including operations and interest, will hit almost $9 billion over the next decade and a half.

By now, most residents are at least loosely familiar with it. The five light rail lines converging on an underground tunnel downtown are what stand out in people's minds. Wednesday, Mayor Barry invited Traffic Anchor Rebecca Schleicher to ride the MTA bus route along Nolensville Road, one of the routes slated for light rail in the plan.

"We would have left Music City Central back there, and we would be underground right now, traveling all the way over so you wouldn't see any of this," the Mayor said, pointing to the red lights and slow-moving lanes of traffic merging away from downtown construction, "and the average time it would take to get there would be three minutes."

It took around ten minutes to get out of the downtown area via the bus at 9:15 on that Wednesday morning.

Rapid and crosstown, battery-run buses with wifi on board are also a big part of the plan, along with better bike and pedestrian routes and an update to the Music City Star.

But the plan has plenty of opponents.

"The main rally cry against it is obviously the bottom line, the price tag," Schleicher said. "For the folks who are wondering why is [more expensive] light rail needed, why not just put buses along those corridors, why specifically light rail?"

"Because I can move a lot more people on a light rail car than I can on a bus," said Mayor Barry, "and it can go faster, and I think a lot of this is wanting to be able to be assured that I can get to someplace on a dedicated lane quickly. So right now this bus we're on is going to sit in traffic."

The plan has called for a mixture of tax raises, including a one-cent sales tax increase, which would put Nashville among the highest sales tax cities in the country. It's the main sticking point for many opponents, and it couldn't come at a worse time for transit's biggest cheerleader.

Multiple investigations have been launched into the Mayor's use of taxpayer money during her admitted two-year affair with her head of security.

"Is that something you're thinking about, that might be a distraction or at worst may mobilize people to go to the polls against transit?" Schleicher asked.

"I think that people who are for transit are for transit and people who don't want to be for transit will find a reason, but that's not good for Nashville," Barry responded.

The Mayor said she envisions a future Nashville where personal cars aren't even needed.

"It's going to be transformative for the folks who ride."

Between the city's plan and private enterprises like self driving cars, she said one day anyone who wants to ditch the family car will be able to get around, no matter where they need to go.

But opponents of the plan point to low ridership on Nashville's current transit system as an indicator that the comprehensive plan won't be used enough to be worth the investment.

"I think that there's a fallacy there where you think there aren’t enough riders. That’s because there's not a good transit system. People ride if it's easy and it's frequent and and you have good hours," the Mayor said.

One of the immediate changes under the transit plan included extending bus hours to 1:15 a.m, which many in the service and other downtown industries have requested for years.

Barry also pointed to an employer-based EasyRide program to incentivize people to use transit to get to work, and she believes the 19 neighborhood transit centers planned will be instrumental, getting people out of the elements and onto buses or trains in a more comfortable way, parking included.

With early voting opening on April 11, the Mayor said the time is now to change Nashville's landscape forever.

"If you look at other places that have not passed transit, it's taken them eight to ten years to get it back on the ballot. We don’t have that time to wait," she said.

But around 18 percent of the plan's funding has been expected to come from the federal government, and that money, which largely would come from capital investment grants, is never guaranteed.

"Let's say worst case scenario we don’t get the federal money needed for this, where does that money come from, who pays for it?" Schleicher asked.

Mayor Barry said Tennessee lawmakers are already lobbying Washington to make it happen and that she's not worried.

"One of the things the President has said about his infrastructure plan was he wants to invest in two things: places where you have a new project and places where you have new revenue," she said. "Well we check both of those boxes under his proposal."

Next week our series on transit has been set to continue with opponents to the city's plan.