The Works

When It Comes to Transit, Nashville Is Salt Lake City in the 1990s

Salt Lake City light rail (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

Why is Salt Lake City so good at public transportation?

It’s a question I’ve asked before, considering Utah’s low sales tax, conservative legislature and freeway-bound layout. And I’m not the only one (see this Time magazine feature or this Brookings Institution nod.) Last week, it was among the questions that brought nearly 120 civic and business leaders from Nashville to Salt Lake City.

Their trip was part of an annual series arranged by the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce. Every year, officials, advocates and business heads travel to a different metro.

“We try to find a city that’s a step ahead in a few important categories,” explains Nashville Chamber CEO Ralph Schulz.

But while discussion items included immigration, education and housing the homeless (an area in which SLC leads the country right now), the city’s transportation network was the breakout star.

“We rode all over the system and heard a bunch of different speakers,” says Steve Bland, CEO of Nashville’s Metropolitan Transit Authority. According to the trip itinerary, they toured the city’s commuter rail line, light-rail line, BRT system and bike network.

And what struck Bland was SLC’s similarity to Nashville.

“It’s not remarkably different in size or density,” he says, adding that neither one is a transit legacy city, but with rapidly growing populations, demographics trending younger and ed/tech-oriented workforces, both want efficient public transportation.

The difference: Salt Lake City is miles of track ahead. Nashville officials have spent the last half decade struggling unsuccessfully to install a BRT line. Light rail, which isn’t yet in the works, could be years away.

“I would say Nashville is where Salt Lake City was back in the early ’90s,” Bland says.

So his focus rested less on the infrastructure and more on the planning-voting-funding chain necessary to get it on the ground. After all, both cities are blue dots in red states, and we all know what that can mean for regional tax measures and state legislative financing (hello Atlanta). Last year, the Tennessee Senate went so far as to pass a measure banning all mass transit projects in the middle of major highways.

Which brings us back to the original question: Why (or, more accurately, how) is Salt Lake City so good at public transportation?

“It didn’t just happen by coincidence — by everyone staying in their jurisdictional area,” says Ralph Becker, the city’s mayor. “From what I can tell our region is particularly successful at working together to get things done.”

And that might sound like public official PR speak, but it’s true. Becker, who presented during the Nashville visit, cites the state’s most recent legislative session. Although Utah state leaders tend to be tax averse, they voted in March on two noteworthy bumps: raising the gas tax and allowing local governments to ask voters for a quarter-cent sales tax to fund transportation projects. Becker says that up and down the chain of potential advocates, from the city’s Chamber of Commerce to the state DOT, good transportation systems are a regional priority.

And as I’ve written before, pro-transit Utah leaders also tend to employ a unique outreach strategy: selling transit to drivers. Their tactic apparently came across loud and clear to Nashville delegates last week.

Jamie McGee of the the Tennessean covered the conference. One of her stories follows the evolution of Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes from “conservative lawmaker who saw public transit as an over-subsidized social service” to transit advocate — who still preferred to drive.

“Go look at those park-and-rides and look at the thousands and thousands of automobiles that would otherwise be in your way in rush hour,” she quoted Hughes saying. “Daily commuters in their cars are invested in a strong and robust mass transit system because it frees up those lanes and helps them get around more efficiently.”

Creative outreach isn’t the only thing SLC has going for it. As McGee points out in the same article, 80 percent of Utah’s population lives in the Wasatch Front, the region around Salt Lake; it’s probably helpful that so many state-level politicians represent the same area. But it’s a tactic that could help Tennessee officials shift the conversation from modal (and political) competition. And in small ways, Bland says he already sees it happening.

“I had a conversation with some folks here on opposite sides of the transit issue,” he recalls, adding that one person argued against public transportation because Nashville was “a 20-minute town.” The second person’s response: “Ten years ago it was a 15-minute town.”

“It really is becoming more and more difficult to get around,” Bland says. “We can’t layer on a million more people unless we do something different.”

The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian.

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Tags: transportation spendingtransit agenciesnashvillesalt lake city