When asked what her top legislative priority was for the state of Tennessee this year, Nashville Mayor Megan Barry did not hesitate.
“Transportation,” she said. “It’s so critical to our economic vitality for the Nashville region. Mayors speaking with one voice is going to be incredibly important to move on the transportation funding.”
Other mayors from across Middle Tennessee, who gathered for a Mayors Caucus on Tuesday, are largely in agreement. While solving congestion issues has been a rallying cry for regional mayors for several years, local leaders say there is good reason to be optimistic that progress will be made on funding in the coming year as constituents’ frustration with traffic rises.
“People who are stuck in those traffic jams day and night, they are desperate for some kind of solution,” said Robertson County Mayor Howard Bradley. “Legislators will by and large follow what they are hearing from their constituents. If their constituents speak loudly and clearly that they want this, I think they will follow.”
More than 20 regional mayors met with Nashville planning and business officials Tuesday to review the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce’s Vital Signs 2016 report and to outline legislative priorities to focus on during the 2017 General Assembly.
The Regional Transportation Authority recently adopted a $6 billion, 25-year transportation plan, but funding mechanisms have yet to be identified. Barry has said she plans to determine funding strategies by year-end and that state funding will be “critical” to carrying out the transit plan.
Discussions surrounding Tennessee gas tax increases have been underway since 2014, and Gov. Bill Haslam focused a statewide tour on transportation in 2015, but no action has been taken. The state gas tax was last increased in 1989.
That 2017 is not an election year is helpful, Barry said, adding that Haslam will play an important role in the transportation discussion at the state level. “I think the governor will lead the way on transportation funding mechanisms,” she said.
The Vital Signs report focused on post-secondary education, health care and mobility, but transportation and affordable housing issues emerged as the key issues during the mayors’ follow-up discussion Tuesday.
Housing and transportation are the biggest household costs for Middle Tennessee residents, with 29 percent of household income spent on housing and 26 percent on transportation, according to the Vital Signs report. The Nashville metropolitan area exceeds transportation and housing costs, when combined, in Charlotte, N.C.; Austin, Texas; Denver; Atlanta; and Raleigh, N.C.
Increased housing costs have become a focal point of growth discussions in Nashville, but other Middle Tennessee areas are not immune.
“We are struggling with it in Franklin,” Franklin Mayor Ken Moore said. “It’s an expensive place to live, and many of our teachers, firemen, policemen don’t live there. They choose not to because of the high cost.”
The General Assembly struck down mandatory inclusionary zoning last year, a move that prompted Franklin to remove its inclusionary zoning ordinance. Moore said that motivating developers to build workforce housing remains a challenge.
Housing and transportation issues affect one another, Bradley said. Especially in Robertson and Cheatham counties, residents have chosen the areas for their affordable housing that is close enough to commute to Nashville. The commutes are no longer so reasonable.
“Over the years our transportation system has kept up,” Bradley said. “That is eroding rapidly. As commute times increase it becomes less and less feasible to live this far away and work in downtown Nashville. … That’s why it is essential that we resolve these transportation issues we have.”
Reach Jamie McGee at 615-259-8071 and on Twitter @JamieMcGee_.