Perhaps it was the looming deadline to apply for federal funding, or particularly bad morning traffic. Or maybe it's just that his beloved Boston Red Sox are heading into the playoffs as one of the best teams in baseball.
But something got into Mayor Karl Dean last week before he joined a group of the city's movers and shakers to launch The Amp Coalition, "a group of community and business leaders" joining together to support his proposed $175 million bus rapid transit line, The Amp. Speaking from the front lobby of Bridgestone Arena, our typically reserved mayor was more energized than he's ever been, and he made his most forceful case yet for the project. Dean hadn't been so — forgive me — amped up since the grand opening of the Music City Center, when he (and others) performed a verbal touchdown dance, with repeated vague references to those who had opposed the project.
And that's the trouble. Much like that day, in front of what could be the cornerstone of his mayoral legacy, it's hard to discern whether Dean is more animated by conviction in favor of the project, or agitated by the fact that some have the gall to not go along with it. Both were displayed in one of the most strongly delivered passages of Dean's remarks last week.
"When it comes to traffic, people need to know that it won't be the status quo no matter what we do," he said. "You may say, 'Let's just leave everything alone, let's change nothing.' Fine. But the traffic will still come. You don't build The Amp, you don't take an action to affirmatively position the city to move forward, and the traffic will still come.
"In five years, West End is gridlocked, and we have done nothing. And then you turn and look at your kids and look at the young people moving into the city, and they're going to ask you where were you? Where were you when we had an opportunity to do something that would make our future better, which would make the city run and make it work?"
Contained in this statement are both the mayor's strongest and most specious arguments. The strongest case for The Amp would seem to be that as the mayor says, worse traffic is coming no matter what. West End, a corridor that is already often congested, will only get more and more crowded as the Middle Tennessee region grows (according to the city's oft-cited projection) by a million people between now and 2035. A transit option without a dedicated lane does little to solve this, the mayor and project supporters reasonably argue, because it would be subject to the same worsening congestion.
Unfortunately, the mayor wields this argument against an opponent unrecognizable to anyone who's been following the debate over The Amp. Call it "Dean to Straw Man: Drop Dead."
Sure, people may say, "Let's just leave everything alone, let's change nothing" — but largely they aren't saying that. There are those who strongly support investing in transit but think that we should start on Charlotte Avenue (and include parts of North Nashville, where many people depend on public transit). There are others who say a BRT Lite system — like those in operation on Gallatin Road and Murfreesboro Road — would be a better option on West End.
Are there folks who simply do not want The Amp? Yes — see those red "STOP AMP" signs throughout the West End-Richland area. But they do not oppose it because they deny future congestion or abhor progress. Rather, among other reasons, they insist the project in particular will make congestion worse, force traffic into their neighborhood streets, or not attract enough riders to be successful.
The Dean administration and MTA officials may (and in some cases, do) have answers for these arguments, even evidsence proving that they're wrong. But they have often been delivered along with broad brushstrokes that paint Amp opponents as enemies of progress who would strip Nashville of its Itness.
There's no reason to doubt that the mayor sincerely believes The Amp is the right thing at the right time for Nashville. But at times, his blasé tone — "This paper says I'm amped up, so I am saying I am amped up" — has tended to leave the impression that he also sincerely believes people should support the project just because he is the mayor.
Tone isn't everything, but it isn't nothing either. Last week, the mayor sounded more like someone who is enthusiastic about an idea and convinced that it's right. But if he wants to start turning yard signs from red to green, he might have to start engaging the arguments they're actually making, instead of browbeating an anti-Nowville horde that doesn't exist.
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