A disastrous transit vote in Nashville. Will Charlotte do the same?

Charlotte has made a good start on mass transit with the Blue Line, but now needs to develop a full system.
Charlotte has made a good start on mass transit with the Blue Line, but now needs to develop a full system. Observer file photo

When Charlotte’s Blue Line Extension opened to civic chest-thumping this spring, the Observer editorial board briefly joined the celebration but immediately called for aggressive action to give Charlotte not just a transit line but a full-fledged rail and bus system.

This week’s landslide defeat of a referendum to create an equally ambitious transit network for Nashville – a city much like Charlotte in terms of economy, population growth, and heavy reliance on automobiles – makes achieving that goal considerably tougher. Particularly if Charlotte does not dissect and learn from Nashville’s disaster.

Nashville’s $5 billion-plus proposal was to be financed by a mix of sales and other taxes, and the most obvious source of support seemed to be the flood of young people into previously struggling in-town neighborhoods. The city’s business titans amassed financial support, led by the local chamber of commerce. Blue-chip public relations people went to work selling the idea to voters. Nashville’s popular mayor became the campaign’s voice.

Opponents were equally well-organized, though less well-financed. They stuck to messages you often hear against transit in Charlotte — too expensive and not something most people in a sprawling Southern city would use.

Things went well for the “pro” side at first. Then, a sex scandal forced the mayor to resign; the ensuing confusion among advocates gave opponents time to get out front. Interestingly, that opposition went directly to African-American voters — traditionally pro-transit — with a warning that while they would pay mightily for the infrastructure, its greatest beneficiaries would be young, white, affluent newcomers gentrifying traditionally black neighborhoods.

On Tuesday, anti-transit voters stormed the polls, drowning the proposal by a margin of nearly 2-1. Post-mortems largely blamed the defeat on the mish-mash of messaging (was this for economic development, or mobility, or healthier walkable communities, or what?) and the perception that wealthy in-town residents and business people would benefit most.

It’s easy to imagine all this happening in a Charlotte referendum (there has been talk of a 2020 vote on an $8-billion system for build-out over a decade). We have many of the same economic and demographic factors in play. Like Nashville we want to prove we are truly “big-time.” And, traditionally, our business leaders have conceived major public projects and then pressed for their adoption — with the citizenry expected to comply with directives from the patrician class.

I’ve lived here less than three years but have met Charlotteans from all walks of life and all political and economic backgrounds. I don’t think the old way will work anymore. Average citizens want proof that transit — or anything else their tax money buys — truly will benefit them, not just some guy on the 40th floor of a headquarters or a well-paid 27-year-old moving between her uptown office, her pricey apartment and a brew pub.

I’ve also used transit for decades — as a college student in Atlanta who couldn’t afford a car, and for 30 years in the Washington, DC, area where world-class transit helps make the capital one of America’s most livable cities for people at all economic levels. In a few years, I’ll be old enough that driving everywhere is no longer an option — just as it already is for many others, especially our less-affluent neighbors.

Charlotte would benefit immeasurably from an extensive, well-run mass transit network. It’s not just “an amenity” or a “shiny toy” — it’s essential to making a huge metro area livable and workable for all.

We can get there. But we have to make sure we don’t follow Nashville’s path as we try to win broad public support.

Gilroy is a public affairs consultant who lives in southeast Charlotte. Email: