Is there enough grassroots support to build on our transit successes?

MTA board member sees a new normal and political questions on the horizon

Thomas F. “Freddie” O'Connell is one of the most informed Nashville voices on transit and mobility. He was named to the Metropolitan Transit Authority board in May of 2008 and also has served on the board of directors of Walk/Bike Nashville and the mayor's Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee. A software developer for Rustici Software by day, he also is a past president of the board of the Salemtown Neighbors Neighborhood Association. Post Editor Geert De Lombaerde sat down with him in August to tackle some of the big questions related to Middle Tennessee’s growth.


What jumps out to you in thinking about how Nashville is approaching mobility these days? Where do things stand?

I think back to the first year of Mayor Dean’s administration, when he attended the 10th anniversary of Walk/Bike Nashville and announced the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee. He wanted to use that anniversary to announce that initiative, which was a big deal.

There had been movement on this front even during the Bredesen administration, but there were still no dedicated lanes anywhere back then. This announcement accelerated things, then was followed by the appointment of Toks Omishakin [to be ‎Director of Healthy Living Initiatives in the Mayor’s Office]. Now we have 100-plus miles of bike lanes and more shared routes. Looking back even a few years, that’s an extraordinary expansion.

And one that has influenced how many citizens view the issue.

Yes. Initially, particularly with greenways, there was some concern along the lines of, “Who’s going to be running and biking through my back yard?” But now people want to live near a greenway.

To what do you attribute that change over such a short time period?

I really think it has a lot to do with civic leadership. Phil Bredesen’s legacy was of being a big-city, big-project mayor. Bill Purcell is seen as the sidewalks and schools mayor. And I think there’s a real chance Dean will be seen as the mobility mayor for Nashville. I didn’t see that happening when he took office, but we’ve seen much of the agenda of one person and a couple of strong supporters on Council come to fruition.

What needs to happen to cement that mobility mayor legacy?

It’s going to come down to the elections of 2015 and 2019 to choose which parts of the Bredesen, Purcell and Dean legacies we will continue with.

So you don’t see it as a given that our buildout of transit and other mobility initiatives will continue?

It’s close but not sure. I think we’ve hit a new normal. We’re talking about dedicated funding and we’re taking a new approach to complete streets. But it remains to be seen if there is broad enough grassroots support or if it remains mixed with grasstops.

Look at MTA as an example of where we are. It still has a tiny budget but there are different expectations now. If someone were to try to take away some of its funding now, there would be an outcry not just from the people directly affected but also from a number of Council members.

That also speaks to the broader awareness about these issues. Do you see it continuing to develop in this direction?

In that respect, NashvilleNext has come at the perfect time. It’s actively pulling in so many people and it has us talking about parts of town that never get discussed in this context.

Part of the answer about how things develop from here is how much we do things the way Charlotte and Austin have done. They’ve been very aggressive in rolling out transit, and they both have dedicated funding. And a recent Treasury report showed that, within just a few years of implementing new transit options, Charlotte saw a noticeably lower rate of obesity.

We’re seeing it here, too, to some extent. I can’t tell you how many people in the past five years have come up to me and told me how they’ve discovered the benefits of riding the bus. I hope one of the things the Amp does is draw out those hidden benefits and make them more public and visible.

Is there a generational aspect to how our attitudes are changing? The millennial generation moving into the workforce now is a group that expects more things from a city than its predecessors did.

There is something to that. You can also think of a city’s amenities in different ways. There are the purely entrepreneurial ventures like restaurants and you have the public ones such as the Music City Center and other things. At some point, the young people now clamoring for the former are going to go from being the grass roots to the grass tops. They will shape the way Nashville will change. But given what they want from the city today, we will continue to have our very distinctive regions, areas such as Madison, Bellevue, Antioch, and Bordeaux.

So you don’t see the fabric of the city changing even as we build out our transit infrastructure?

It should enhance it. Look at movements like Hip Donelson and the Capitol District. We have a tradition of strong, established neighborhoods around the city. As we grow, people will be clamoring for more anchors in their communities. Then our transit network will increasingly be about tying downtown to our outer rings, areas like The Nations and Sylvan Park.

Do you think there’s a defined window of time for us to really make progress on transit?

That goes back to our vision for the city. We have to be conscious of the competition between cities. We can decide we want to do things to compete with, or even outcompete our peers. But that's a decision. If we ignore it, we lose some opportunity. If we don’t act swiftly, our window will close.

Is public opinion coming around quickly enough for us to act as swiftly as you think we need to?

I think so. Look at how we talk about Atlanta. It is no longer simply the city we’re comparing ourselves to during conversations like that. It’s the concept, right? It’s become an abstraction about how not to guide regional growth.

That’s a good transition to our regional infrastructure questions. Does Nashville, because of its size, have to take the lead there by default?

Not necessarily. Yes, Metro has the dollars and the resources. But look at the Mayors’ Caucus. One, no one has walked in there like Nashville is a gorilla that needs to be tamed. And two, leaders from around the region haven’t shied away from taking leadership posts.

Look back, too, to the trip to Denver the city organized in 2009. It was not just Mayor Dean who came back from that trip with ideas on how to move forward. A broad array of people from across the region saw what had worked there. They also saw Nashville growing to be what Denver is in size now. It wasn’t that Dean was the only voice preaching and that his were the only eyes that had seen it.

Still, there are people around the city who see a bigger transit network as something being forced on them by a small group. NIMBY is very present when this topic comes up.

That will happen when you change the infrastructure of any area. We’ve seen it, too, with neighborhood overlays, eminent-domain cases and easements for sidewalks and other projects. We can’t take lightly even the smallest changes but you’ll see that it’s almost impossible to get complete consensus. The big question is how to advance projects without automatically creating a sense of disenfranchisement.

Are we getting better at that as a community?

I don’t know how we, or anyone, can get much better. Even if you have an 80/20 situation, some of the 20 percent will feel aggrieved. You hope that you can move the needle to 90/10 over time. And you hope that a series of demonstrated successes builds trust in the overall direction.

Does it seem to you like enough Nashvillians are comfortable with greater development density in the city?

I’m not sure. We haven’t seen it a lot in neighborhoods yet. Look at where there has been some friction — in Hillsboro Village, 12South, Five Points.  Even in Midtown, there was a lot of debate. You would have thought that would be a natural area for people to think about denser development. But it still comes down to being sensitive to property rights and the character of certain areas.

What are some of the things you’re looking to have happen in the next three years?

Rolling out the Amp is the main one. But it’s what follows it that will be critically important. We have had good success with BRT-lite services so a big question is whether we can extend an Amp-type service into other corridors or through a loop service.

The second thing I’m paying attention to is how we end up digesting the output of NashvilleNext. What comes out of that process and what will Council approve? The goal now is to create a plan for the city. I know it’s not likely to be what Nashville actually becomes, but it will help us grow. And in that way, NashvilleNext will help improve the way we handle the friction that comes with change.

Another thing to watch is our conversation on density and zoning. That will continue to be very important — as we’ve seen with the Gallatin SP recently.

And then I’m looking at the 2015 Metro elections. Every citywide Metro office will be limited out, as will a healthy chunk of district Council members.

Do you see the issue of dedicated funding for transit playing a role in those elections?

I don’t know. Ask me a year from now when we know better who’s running. But look at the priorities being voiced from the initial Green Ribbon Committee meetings straight through the NashvilleNext process: Right at the top at almost every meeting is the need for more and better transportation.

The issue of dedicated funding is easy to pick up and run with. But it’s not necessarily easy to pick up and win with.

Would it help to get a dollar figure out in the open and let people figure out if they’d be comfortable paying their share of that?

That’s tough to say. It’s different from thinking about the cost of car ownership. Most people don’t consciously think about that $8,000 a year they spend on a car. But if you maximize people’s choices with better transit and they begin to substitute car trips with buses, many people probably would come out ahead financially.

You could carry that analogy into a broader discussion on infrastructure and planning.

Yes, and in both cases, it’s important to point out that we’re not responding to a crisis these days. We’re responding to our own successes. We’ve made a lot of good long-term choices very quickly, so now the question is, “Do we have the momentum to move way beyond being a car-only city?”

Having prototypes changes the potential to something tangible and very exciting. Just as the Amp could be the start of bigger things, so is having Deaderick as a green street and building segregated bike lines on the 28th Avenue Connector. The way we think about streets has started to turn the corner. That’s transformative in its own right, but can we complete it?

What would the next steps look like in a path toward completion?

Long term, we need to have someone capable succeed Rick Bernhardt at Planning and get beyond having acting directors at Public Works. Those departments create our built environment and need visionaries like Dr. Paul at Metro Health. They also need to be working ever more closely together. We need to look at Nashville projects with a 25-year horizon and have those groups work together holistically.

Is that process still too reactionary today?

I’m not necessarily saying that. I’m only saying that top-down processes mean a lot. Rick’s leaving behind a great team and I’d like to see them continue to do good work.