Mass Transit in the Sun Belt

Mass Transit in the Sun Belt

If you build it, they will come—but not if the system is skimpy and unreliable.

November 1, 2018

This article appears in the Fall 2018 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here

Even in car-dependent middle America, there is support for local mass transit in surprising places. Some of these are blue cities in red states, with City Hall governed by Democrats or pragmatic Republicans. In some, the local business elite backs transit initiatives out of frank acknowledgment that reliance on cars has reached its limits. This stance, however, puts them at odds with more ideologically anti-government Republicans who typically control Sun Belt state legislatures. The pro-carbon obsession of the Trump administration largely eliminates federal funds, at least for now, as any sort of carrot.

The transit coalition is also fragile. With mass transit underdeveloped and inconvenient, many suburbanites view buses as transit of last resort for the poor and prefer commuting by car. And in some cities minority communities want more transit in principle, but don’t trust that new rail lines will serve them when basic bus service in their communities is sporadic. Whether these aspiring cities prevail in their efforts to expand transit depends largely on the vagaries of political leadership, timing, and luck.

This article looks at three of them. In Houston, which famously has no zoning, planning of any kind is a challenge—and transit requires long-term planning. Although voters approved a light rail system plan and a regional transit agency to build it in 1978, the first light rail line didn’t open until 2004. Adequate scale has been blocked by local opposition and hostile members of Congress, particularly Representatives Tom DeLay and John Culberson. While rail has been slowed, Houston has nonetheless managed an impressive revamping of its bus service.

Salt Lake City, despite a state that is rock-ribbed Republican in its governors and senators, often elects Democratic mayors. The mountain west has always been reliant on federal funding to aid development, and Republican legislators and governors in Utah tend to be less ideologically opposed to help from Washington than those in some other red states. Salt Lake City transit advocates are also helped by geography. The city is hemmed in by mountains on two sides and the Great Salt Lake on a third, so there are severe limits to highway expansion and suburban growth requires mass transit. Salt Lake City has also had competent local leadership that isn’t opposed to planning.

In Nashville, by contrast, political bungling upended a far-reaching plan for a region-wide light rail system. Given extreme highway congestion, popular and elite support for expanded transit has grown in recent years. Yet different political and business leaders had rival visions of how to proceed. In 2017, a broad coalition managed to qualify a $5.4 billion ballot initiative that included 19 transit centers, expanded bus service, and five new tram lines, as well as sidewalk and bike infrastructure improvements. The proposal was backed by the Chamber of Commerce and Nashville’s popular Democratic mayor, Megan Barry. But when she resigned in disgrace in a sex scandal, the transit plans died with her. The final nail in the coffin was financial support by the Koch brothers for a nasty media campaign against the plan.

Beyond the vagaries of local policies, efforts to catapult car-reliant cities into a mass-transit era are hobbled by the logic of building large transportation systems. These projects take decades. If you don’t build it, they won’t come. Federal and local subsidies for autos have a 70-year head start. The highway lobby is not at all averse to planning—for highways—and the existing pattern of development both reflects and reinforces the dominance of cars. By contrast, the incremental expansion of bus or light rail lines fails to change the basic dynamics of how people get to work or go shopping, or where development occurs. Local government that reflects fierce partisan, ideological, and interest-group contention typically produces stop-and-go transit plans.

It’s only in a few older, denser cities like New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Boston that long-established commuter rail, bus, and subway systems are credible alternatives to cars, and even in these cities, mass transit systems are crumbling because they’ve been starved for adequate funds and some have been woefully mismanaged. Newer Sun Belt cities, reflecting divided partisan government and a stronger pro-highway coalition, typically have great difficulty getting mass transit out of first gear. One political misstep can be fatal.

AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

Salt Lake City's commuter rail system, FrontRunner, opened is 2008 with 70 miles of track. It was expanded in 2011. 


Houston: a Story of Stop and Go

Houston is one of just three metropolitan areas that saw mass-transit ridership increase in 2016. A big factor was a major revamping of its bus system. When Tom Lambert became president and CEO of Houston METRO in 2013, he and the board examined declining ridership, and realized the hub-and-spoke system taking people from the suburbs to the downtown hadn’t changed much in 30 years, despite population growth and changes in where people lived and worked. Given the checkerboard pattern of Houston’s unplanned development, few commuters came into a downtown hub—they commuted every which way. METRO board member Christof Spieler led a participatory process of reimagining the system, reconfiguring it into a grid pattern that aligns better with jobs, population, and commuting patterns. The revamped system opened on August 16, 2015, and a year later, ridership reached about 4.5 million—an almost 7 percent increase.

Building light rail has been tougher. There is a long history of contentious debate breaking down on city-suburban lines, but with shifting and unstable race and class alliances. After a defeat of a proposed light rail system in 1973, voters approved the creation of a regional transit agency, METRO, in 1978, and also approved a one-cent sales tax in the service area as its source of revenue. To get that approval, METRO had to focus on roads as much as transit, a move that intensified Houston’s sprawled growth pattern. METRO would also need voter approval to float bonds for transit, a stipulation that would slow down light rail development.

When pro-transit Democratic Mayor Kathy Whitmire came to office in 1982, the Houston Chamber of Commerce released a regional mobility plan that focused on expanding and improving roads and the bus system. METRO responded with another rail plan and the fight was on. Houston voters seemed to support transit, but rejected it in a 1983 referendum. The federal dollars that had been earmarked for the project were redistributed to other cities.

A transit proposal finally happened in 1988, when Whitmire proposed a 22-mile rail line extending from the Texas Medical Center to downtown and then south to the Galleria, a regional shopping mall. Voters approved a $650 million bond initiative to fund it and the federal government agreed to cover $500 million of what had escalated to a $1.2 billion project, with city revenue paying the balance.

But after five terms, Whitmire was defeated by a more conservative Democrat, Bob Lanier, in the primary. When he became mayor in 1992, Lanier stopped the rail project and sealed Houston’s fate as a car-dependent sprawled city. He diverted the federal funding to road maintenance and beefing up the police force, which were key to his agenda of stemming middle-class flight. Lanier’s pet project was a billion-dollar Grand Parkway, an outer ring road to allow further development of undeveloped parts of the metro area.

Rail got back on the agenda in 1997, when another Democrat, Lee Brown, became the city’s first black mayor. Brown supported a light rail line on Main Street, a major north-south thoroughfare. This time, the grinch who stole transit was Republican Tom DeLay, representing a suburban district, who made sure federal transit funds wouldn’t find their way to Houston. As the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation chair, not only did DeLay kill a $65 million congressional appropriation for Brown’s proposed project, he inserted language into the federal transportation bill that would ensure Houston would not receive federal transit funds under his watch.

Even so, METRO was able to use its accumulated sales tax funding stream to build the green line on Main Street. The $325 million line opened in 2004, extending south from the downtown to a medical center and north to a sports complex.

While the red line was under construction, another voter referendum for a $640 million bond issue to expand light rail and the bus network was put on the ballot. Despite suburban developers and highway contractors creating an opposition group, Texans for True Mobility, which raised close to $2 million to fight the initiative, it passed in 2003. Construction on the red line expansion started in 2009 and was completed in December 2013—ahead of schedule and under budget. Two additional lines, serving eastern and southeastern parts of the city, opened in 2015.

The most controversial line proposed was the blue (university) line, an 11-mile east-west span that would make a much-needed connection of the red and purple lines south of downtown. It was always planned as part of the system and was part of the 2003 referendum. Republican Representative John Culberson was adamantly opposed to the line, citing opposition from his constituents, particularly businesses along its route who thought it would reduce car and foot traffic. He inserted language into five consecutive federal appropriations bills, the latest in 2017, making the project ineligible for federal funding because of opposition from his constituents.

With no chance of federal funding for rail, the Uptown Management District began planning a four-mile BRT corridor to serve this growing mixed-use area roughly equivalent to the entire downtown of Denver. John Breeding, president of Uptown Houston, comments that the local business community realized that continued economic vitality of the district required better transit links and was willing to finance it. Uptown Houston is a special-purpose district created by petition of property owners that can tax itself to support specific purposes, which it does, generating about $10 million a year. The total project, which includes enhanced pedestrian walkways, will cost about $200 million. The project has $62 million in federal grants and the Texas Department of Transportation is paying at least $25 million for the dedicated stretch along Interstate 610. The rest will be financed by local funds.

Houston has a good start, but hasn’t been able to finish the system originally envisaged in 2003. There has been a strong anti-transit movement while the light rail system was being built that continues today. They voice concerns about costs and infringement on space for cars.

It takes time for transit to catch on in a car-oriented city—both in terms of ridership and development. While the initial red line has exceeded ridership predictions and property values along its route have increased, the other two lines haven’t yet met expectations. Kyle Shelton, a Rice University transportation expert, says that it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy—with a big hole in the system (the blue line), ridership won’t increase. People then point to low ridership and use it as justification for not investing in expensive transit. With the bus revamping, residents woke up one morning to an entirely different system (with plenty of education and outreach prior). With transit, building incrementally creates a less-than-optimal system.

In Houston, there is still substantial voter and business opposition to increased transit. Every funding referendum that passed took years of fighting. The promise of expanded transit keeps being undermined by the occasional hostile mayor, a Republican state government focused on roads, and outright sabotage by congressional Republicans such as DeLay and Culberson. As a consequence, only 5 percent of black Houstonians take public transit to work and not quite 2 percent of whites. Even so, Houston has made some headway. With federal and state support, it could do a great deal more.


Salt Lake City—and a Surprising Leader in Transit Growth

Utah hasn’t had a Democratic governor since 1985 and has had a Republican trifecta since 1992. Yet the Salt Lake City region, which has a mix of Democratic and Republican mayors, has been building transit since the 1990s—much of it funded locally. Salt Lake City itself has been led by Democratic mayors since 1976. Politicians and the business community are united on the need for transit to fuel the area’s economic growth. Surrounded by mountains the length of the metro area on the east and west and two lakes north and west, they realized early on that there is no room for more highways.

A 1992 ballot initiative to fund transit failed. But when the Utah Transit Authority (UTA), which serves the Salt Lake City metropolitan area, received federal funds for 80 percent of a light rail line, it jumped on the opportunity. The first line of what became the TRAX system, a 19-mile north-south line, opened in 1999 and transit has been expanding ever since.

A growth-planning process undertaken in the late 1990s by Envision Utah, a nonprofit organization that works with cities and towns to plan for healthy expansion in Salt Lake City, called for 300 miles of light rail and created a vision of how denser growth would create better neighborhoods and downtown than unchecked sprawled development. Envision Utah sought considerable citizen participation so its recommendations were well regarded by the public. Once the first line was built, residents who were skeptical about transit saw the benefits and wanted it in their neighborhoods. A second line, spanning east-west, opened in 2001 to connect the downtown to the University of Utah.

An 89-mile commuter rail, FrontRunner, opened in 2008 and was expanded in 2011. In addition, the city’s nine-mile BRT line, MAX, opened in 2008. It operates in segregated lanes and has off-bus fare collection. Another BRTline is scheduled to open in 2019 and others are being planned.

In August 2013, a project that added 70 miles of rail connecting suburbs to downtown and a line to the airport was completed two years ahead of schedule and $300 million under budget. A streetcar line also opened in 2013 to connect neighborhoods to TRAX and bus services. The line has been so popular that an additional track is being built to allow more frequent service. In 2013, Salt Lake City was the nation’s only city simultaneously building light rail, BRT, streetcars, and commuter rail.

The TRAX light rail system now has three lines with 50 stations along 42.5 miles of track. It has created a virtuous cycle—the more residents see transit, the more they want it and the businesses want to locate near transit stations. The UTAestimates that 25 percent of downtown workers arrive by public transportation.

Transit planning is widely supported. A plan developed by all of the state’s transit agencies was unveiled in 2010. Its state funding formula called for spending one-third each on transit, state roads, and local roads. Unity on the importance of transit from the state on down has translated into success in obtaining federal dollars. State funds along with dedicated local sales taxes approved by voters in ballot initiatives make up the difference. As a result, Salt Lake City has been one of the nation’s leaders in per capita transit investment for most of the 2000s. 

Following Envision Utah’s commitment to transit-oriented development, a walkable suburban development with connection to transit has been built. A planned development called Daybreak is a mixed-use community of about 12,000 that will ultimately have 20,000 homes.

AP Photo/Erik Schelzig

Although it had several key ingredients for transit expansion, Nashville's political and business leadership failed to turn that opportunity into success. 

Yet the Salt Lake City area also has had bumps in the road in transit planning. Voters rejected Proposition 1, a $58 million sales tax hike for mass transit and road improvements, in 2015. While 62 percent of Salt Lake City voters, representing about 17 percent of the county, supported the increase, it was not popular in much of the rest of the county. But rather than being a vote against transit, many saw it as a vote of no confidence in the UTA, which was under scrutiny for problems of mismanagement, bloated salaries, and questionable deals.

In November 2017, a ballot initiative proposing to raise $87 million from a 0.25 percent sales tax increase was rejected by seven of 17 counties in the region. In March 2018, the state legislature passed a transportation bill with a clause that allowed counties in which the proposition failed to approve it or place it back on the ballot. In May, Salt Lake County passed an ordinance to enact the percent sales tax increase to fund transit and other infrastructure improvements if cities and towns representing 67 percent of the county’s population adopted it as well. A month later, that threshold was reached, allowing a 0.25 percent county-wide tax. And in June, the proposition from 2015 passed, which will be spent on roads and transit.

So it appears that transit is back on track in Salt Lake City. A new transit master plan was unveiled in 2017. When its projects are completed in 2040, at least 73 percent of Salt Lake City residents will live within two blocks of a high-frequency bus or rail service. The lesson of Salt Lake City is that broad public support is crucial and that success builds on success. Once a transit system is valued by actual users, popular backing is reinforced. The constraints imposed on highways by those mountains and lakes didn’t hurt either.


Bungling Transit in Nashville

Nashville provides a sad contrast to Salt Lake City. In principle, several key ingredients for a transit expansion were there—increased demand and citizen and business support. But the city’s political and business leadership failed to turn that opportunity into success.

Like many Sun Belt cities, the pattern of Nashville’s rapid growth has been low-density and sprawled. So for most people, cars are the only way to get to work. As a result, Nashville has been working its way up the most-congested-city charts, reaching 27th in 2018.

Nashville’s bus system hasn’t been keeping up with growth and has provided inconsistent and infrequent service. Expansion and improvement of the system serving commuters was on the agenda of Karl Dean when he was sworn in as mayor of Metro Nashville and Davidson County in September 2007.

Working with Dean, the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) and the Metropolitan Council of Nashville and Davidson County appropriated $7.5 million for improving the system. Dean sought federal funding for a BRT route that he hoped would connect the divided city. Proposed in 2012, the Amp, named to acknowledge Nashville’s reputation as a music city, would create a 7.1-mile BRT route, at a cost of $174 million. The project sought $75 million in federal funding, $35 million from the state, with the remaining $65 million to be funded from the city’s capital budget. The proposed route would have extended across the city, connecting the poor but gentrifying east (40 percent African American) side and wealthy west side (92 percent white) through the downtown.

But the seemingly straight line across Nashville had several fault lines. Supporters included the Nashville Chamber of Commerce and the Convention and Visitors Corporation, Vanderbilt University, several hospitals, and many downtown businesses, who saw transit as essential to continued economic development. Members of the opposition group, Stop Amp, were against using tax dollars for transit generally and had specific objections related to their businesses. Key among the members were Rick Williams, the owner of a limousine company, and Lee Beaman, who owns a large car dealership.

The east-west route, which would have served several rapidly growing neighborhoods across the city, was controversial. Residents of largely African American North Nashville didn’t support it because they preferred improvements in the regular bus lines serving their neighborhood. The downtown entertainment and tourism industry opposed the dedicated lane because they thought it would ruin the character of the neighborhood and scare off tourists with years of construction. Wealthy West End residents worried about “riffraff” from East Nashville coming to their neighborhood.

Despite the critics, the project seemed to have popular support. When the Obama administration committed $27 million in federal funds for the project in March 2014, Beaman determined that the Amp would have to be killed at the state level. He enlisted Americans for Prosperity, the right-wing political advocacy organization financed by the Koch brothers. Andrew Ogles, director of the Tennessee chapter of Americans for Prosperity, worked with State Senator Jim Tracy, chair of the transportation and safety committee, to draft legislation that banned BRT using dedicated lanes or rights of way.

The bill passed in the Senate, but the compromise bill that passed allowed dedicated lanes only with approval from the state legislature and the state highway commissioner (regardless of whether state funds are used). By then, Dean, near the end of his term and termed out, figured a new mayor would be unlikely to take up the divisive issue, so he announced in October 2014 that he would not seek financing for the project. Three months later, Steve Bland, new CEOof the MTA, called for halting the ongoing design work.

AP Photo / Michael Stravato

Houston METRO opened its Green Line on Main Street in 2004. Three additional lines opened in 2013 and 2015. 

But Bland was not giving up on transit—he authorized using $750,000 in unused Amp funds for strategic planning for transit. The MTA and the Regional Transportation Authority developed a 25-year strategic plan, nMotion, released in September 2016. It laid out three scenarios for improving transit—modest improvements in the existing bus system, expansion of  bus and BRT, and bus and BRTwith regional light rail.

The next steps were up to then-Mayor Megan Barry, a charismatic liberal Democrat with close ties to the city’s business community and a transit supporter. Working from the third scenario of nMotion, she assembled a group including the Nashville Chamber of Commerce, real-estate developers, and property owners to develop a plan, Let’s Move Nashville, that was released in October 2017 to go on the ballot in May 2018.

It called for expanding service hours of the bus system, creating four “rapid bus” routes (BRT-lite that would have signal priority, but only dedicated lanes and level-boarding platforms on limited stretches), 26 miles of light rail along five corridors, 19 transit centers, and sidewalk and bike infrastructure improvements. The $5.4 billion in capital costs for the plan, totaling $9 billion, would be financed through four tax increases (sales, hotel, car rental, and business and excise) that would start in 2023 and end in 2068, raising about $100 million annually.

The Nashville Chamber of Commerce started the Transit for Nashville campaign to promote the initiative, and quickly raised $1.3 million to sell it to voters. The business community seemed to be in agreement that it was essential to continued economic growth. The Tennessean editorial board supported it, as did many politicians in the region.

On the opposing side, Lee Beaman launched No Tax 4 Tracks in January 2018 and the state chapter of Americans for Prosperity launched a “Stop the Train” campaign to  encourage residents to voice their disapproval at what they called a waste of tax dollars. They ran a very effective door-to-door campaign, calling it a $9 billion boondoggle.

In May, the referendum failed; 64 percent voted against it. A post-mortem reveals death by a thousand cuts. While the Americans for Prosperity campaign was one factor, it was only one of several factors that killed the proposal, starting with the behind-closed-doors approach to developing it. The announcement of the Let’s Move Nashville proposal came as a complete surprise to most members of the city council and the public, feeding suspicion that it was more in the interest of developers and those whose property values would increase than for commuters.

The coup de grace came in March, when Barry resigned after pleading guilty to felony theft of city funds and having an affair with her bodyguard. But she already had been losing credibility among her base in the African American community by proposing to reduce services in a hospital serving the community and using a historic park, Fort Negley, to develop low-income housing.

Several advocates of the program told me a big lesson learned was that messaging matters. Transit for Nashville didn’t have a persuasive story of why transit would benefit everyone, particularly to those living in the outer parts of the county. In a city where few used transit, a campaign such as one used in Salt Lake City, “Some of us use it, all of us need it,” would have been more effective.

Another political miscalculation was choosing a low-turnout election in May rather than waiting until November. The campaign was short, leaving little time to explain the plan to skeptical voters. The Nashville experience shows that major local funding for mass transit is an uphill climb, even when the local business community supports it, and that there is little margin for political miscalculations, of which there were many.


IT’S A TOUGH TIME TO be selling transit—whether rail or bus or bus-rapid transit (buses with separated lanes)—when ridership is down in almost every U.S. city. And there’s a new element. Naysayers argue that our traffic gridlock can be solved with Uber and Lyft van services and autonomous vehicles, painting rail as a 20th-century solution to a 21st-century problem. They may be part of a solution, but will only add to highway congestion. Cities do need a multimodal approach, with increased rail and bus-rapid transit.

The problem is that in most newer cities, the existing transit grid is so partial that too few citizens use it and trust it. So cars keep begetting more cars. Mass transit is only likely to reach critical mass with significant federal funding, something that awaits a massive infrastructure push from the next progressive administration.  

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