Thursday, January 12, 2006

Highway 385 Suggests We Have Lost The War On Sprawl

County elected officials talk about the evils of sprawl, the OPD staff keeps working on planning reports and the taxpayers keep grumbling, but reading headlines ballyhooing the coming completion of Tennessee Highway 385, it’s easy to feel that the war against sprawl is over.

We lost.

The opening of the 54-mile suburban loop (if your version of suburbs includes the southwestern fringe of Fayette County) will be $450 million of fuel that will power sprawl ever eastward, increasing county government’s suffocating debt along the way. Just as its gravitational pull will extend development, it will also erode the core city and increase the pricetag that the public pays for government services.

The existence of 385 speaks to the curious nature of government and its love affair with asphalt. There’s always a seeming urgency to satisfy the needs of the development industry and to enable the flight of citizens away from areas where public investments are already paid for.

There’s almost a blind obedience to the car. Somewhere along the way, because of the power campaign contributors and road builders wield, an overriding purpose of government morphed into making people mobile at the expense of neighborhood, the urban core and the public pocketbook.

Why was Highway 385 needed? It’s hard to say with precision, because its genesis lay in the Tennessee Department of Transportation where the building industry has long driven the agenda. (Fortunately, Governor Philip Bredesen has made major progress in changing the culture of TDOT with a non-road builder as commissioner.)

For 385, there was the obligatory traffic study which inevitably shows that the growth of development demands this new road looping way out east and then up to Arlington and around to Millington. Of course, the problem is that there is no counter-balancing study on the impact on the core city or the neighborhoods that are being hollowed out. There is no fiscal note that tells the cost of abandoning existing infrastructure or the social costs of declining neighborhoods and the problems incubated there.

It’s always curious to read the blistering letters to the editor from people living in Collierville or Arlington who are complaining about the public money spent on downtown Memphis. And yet, that public investment downtown is dwarfed by the public money spent on highways to get people to move in the other direction.

In particular, Shelby County Government’s engineering department treats every project like it’s building I-40. That’s why you end up with gaudy arteries that make no sense -- seven lanes for Shelby Drive or Holmes Road. Like 385, the lanes and lanes of highways are gifts to development, and since the poor are not campaign contributors, their voices are lost and their interests too easily forgotten.

Then, too, after these gargantuan roads are built to handle the shifting traffic loads, there’s never any plan to go back to the roads that no longer handle the loads for which they were built and size them down for their current uses and to make them less unsightly.

As for 385, already, the daily traffic count is 238,710 vehicles. In the future, with much of Highway 385 serving as I-269 - the circumferential interstate for I-69 – that number will only skyrocket. For years, city and county governments advocated strongly for an I-69 route that followed the interstate through the heart of Memphis, but like water dripping on a stone, slowly but surely, development interests had the eastern I-269 route added, primarily as justification for it extending through DeSoto County and certain real estate interests.

This future combination of Highway 385/I-269 can be lethal unless Memphis and Shelby County turn their attention now to preventing more unbridled sprawl. There’s not much time. By 2008, the highway should be finished and open for traffic from I-240 near Mt. Moriah all the way to U.S. Highway 51 in Millington.

In a recent article in The Commercial Appeal, an Arlington landowner hailed the coming highway: “As every piece comes together, pretty soon, you will have something with 385 like the loop around Atlanta…Now you go up there (the Atlanta beltway), and there are hotels everywhere and apartments and office complexes by the thousands. It’s just another layer of city out there.”

Of course, that’s the problem. Unlike Memphis, the layer of city in Shelby County is not the result of population growth, but mere population movement, and as we’ve seen, the cost of that to the public sector is financially unsustainable. And even with the population growth in Atlanta, the negative consequences of the beltways there have been documented, particularly its role in shifting the majority of jobs to outside of the beltway and leaving the city center to cope with a variety of serious social ills.

Which brings us to a cogent comment by Tennessee Department of Transportation Commissioner Gerald Nicely, who recently proposed that the state should build toll roads. He suggested that the “Orange Route” beltway around Knoxville would be a good candidate.

So would Highway 385. Right now, with a $1 toll, it would generate $87 million a year, and if the commissioner really wants a formula for fairness, he would split it with Shelby County Government – which foots most of the bill for sprawl – and Memphis City Government – which is left to contend with the problems of neighborhood decline.


Hippoplatypus said...

Isn't at least some of the problem answering the question: WHY are people moving away from existing infrastructure in Memphis. I think you know the answer to that question.

Anonymous said...

As long as we have the present kind of leadership that has no limit to the amount of tax payers money it can waste I for one do not care what happens to Memphis. We have a biased black majority that keeps electing an irresponsible mayor and is proud of it.

Anonymous said...

385/I-269 will provide an option to reduce traffic once I-69 is complete. The addition of an entirely new interstate (I-69) to the already overcrowded I-240 would leave us Memphians wishing we were in Atlanta traffic.

Smart City Consulting said...

Traffic studies for I-69 show that the interstate through the city would be the most efficient route for truckers, save fuel and with some modifications to the existing roads, handle the loads efficiently. The question of public investment and sprawl is chicken and egg, and why is it fiscally responsible for the majority who are not moving to have to foot the bill for those who need to move ever eastward. Not only is it budgetarily unsustainable, as proven by the county debt, it should be the spark for a taxpayer revolt. If people want to move, let them, but why should they expect every one else to subsidize their decision?

mike said...

"... why should they expect every one else to subsidize their decision?" Good question! One I ask every time I see the FedEx Forum and the Cannon Performing Arts Center.

There is a plethora of unrelated reasons for folks not moving back into the "center city." First, the ADA requirements for retrofitting many of the old office buildings downtown is prohibitive, and yet they can't be torn down either.

Lots of lots being held for various reasons but not being maintained or resold. Zoning issues can be addressed there, as well as ways to "incentivise" (Damn but I hate that word.) them to sell to folks who will rebuild. After all, not all of us are Henry Turley or John Belz, who can get the City to give us publicly property at a bargain price.

And, as an anecdotal example, I point to my block of Monroe Avenue, in the heart of Midtown, where we've recently had two spec homes built and quickly sold. We now have a empty corner lot about to be rezoned from commercial to residential for another spec home. There's a new Loeb strip mall (quite nicely done, I must say) finishing up around the corner. And the all-but-abandoned antique store building next door just recently got a million dollar offer to sell.

Anecdotal, yes, but evidence of vitality unrelated to "sprawl."

Smart City Consulting said...

We have no presumption that every one should move downtown. That wasn't the point of the commentary. The point is that the vast majority of us are never going to be enjoying some sports event in Eads or the symphony in Fisherville. What we need is greater densities, not vaster and vaster generic suburban growth. And for the record, the writer of this particular post lives in Germantown and was reared in Collierville.

MidsouthGambler said...

While I cannot disagree with the article's attack on sprawl, 385 does serve one purpose that was desperately needed: another route to southeast Shelby County. If you are coming from the east, and are going anywhere in southeast or south Shelby County, the only route is through malfunction junction. This has led to the massive traffic and the resulting wrecks, backups, etc., that we have all had to sit through. When 385 links up with I-40, that congestion is going to be greatly relieved and will save a lot of people a lot of time and gas.

Smart City Consulting said...

Then, what are the benefits of sprawl?

BD Friend said...

385 caters to Collierville to the point of encouraging people to go there to work, to live, to shop. The effects will be to hurt Memphis that much more, to reduce the City's tax base and especially exacerbate the deterioration of Hickory Hill.

I personally encourage Memphians NOT to shop at the new (and unnecessary) outdoor Mall there unless they feel that they do not pay high enough property taxes.

I wonder what would be the reaction if the citizens of Collierville would be called upon to finance the remainder of 385 as the only true beneficiary of this latest Pork Barrel project.

mike said...

"Then, what are the benefits of sprawl?"

Hmmm... let's see:

1. A new home of your own; not an apartment or condo.
2. A yard attached to the house for children to play in, where kids can keep their toys; not a public park down the street, out of view, with little or nothing.
3. A low-traffic street; not a city street.
4. Low "opportunity" and "street" crime; fewer transients passing by.
5. Good schools; not a floundering, poor system.
6. Quiet; not city noise. Nor loud parties upstairs / in the next apartment.
7. One tax on property; not two.
8. Escape from a corrupt, cronyist, seemingly irreparable City government.

Larry said...

Well said Mike!

As to Smartcity's point about enjoying sports events ... well, I've enjoyed fewer sports events since the Redbirds moved downtown (as did basketball). Except to support downtown, there was no reason to build Autozone Park and the FedEx Forum downtown.

Memphis (downtown included) would be a great place to live if not for the corrupt city leadership that has a mayor who spends money like a desperate housewife and a cuckold city council.

I do think it is stupid to build bigger streets and highways to the suburbs and then complain about people moving ... it'll be just as stupid to build a light rail out there and still complain.

And if you "redensifiy" the city, then you'll have all those "evil" cars stuck in congestion on the streets ... or do you honestly believe that people who stay or move back into the city will use the bus?

But then, they can't use the bus because the MATA morons can't design a system with a flip.

Smart City Consulting said...

Mike: What an idyllic view of suburbia. Most city residents live in their own homes with attached yards, not in apartments; if you want to see the most heavily traveled, most disruptive traffic arteries in Shelby County, try driving down roads not built by the City of Memphis, but Shelby County - roads like Germantown Road, Houston Levee Road, Shelby Drive and Holmes Road; if you compare Shelby County schools to its peer school systems, it is not good, it is average, and actually Memphis is making more progress on its No Child Left Behind benchmarks; the vast majority of Shelby County residents pay two property taxes, not one (and those feeling to Mississippi even pay income tax), and we're not experts on whether the municipal governments are free from cronyism. While Memphis is not perfect, neither is life outside Memphis, and somehow, there is a perceptive that all criminals in Memphis have a map of the city's boundaries and they never, never commit a crime until an area is annexed. All in all, I'll take Memphis any day.

turnerarch said...

Wow, I step away from the computer for a few weeks and come back to this! Of course, I have to add my two cents, but seeing as this particular post is aging, chances are no one will read it.
Highway bypasses are all well and good. They have been used extensively in Europe, but with a different purpose in mind. In most major cities highways simple approach the existing urban area where they meet a large "belt-line" highway. In essence these highway loops serve as two way round-abouts on the regional scale. Thus the evils resulting from freeways slicing through existing neighborhoods was largely avoided. In conjunction, and this is the important part, growth along these belts was coordinated with regional plans whose purpose was to counter any impulse to "gut" the existing urban area. Such controls have been tightened even further in the past decade. Now this synopsis is overly simplified and there does exist a significant minority of every city that lives in "American" style suburbs.
As to certain other comments. What does a corrupt mayor have to do with a city’s quality of life? Unless you are suggesting that such corruption is decimating a police force, services, or public institutions, then there is little correlation. In Memphis’ case we are dealing with circumstances and issues that involve a much larger area than just the Memphis municipal district and result trace their heritage back many decades. There are numerous examples of corrupt city governments throughout history, and in some cases rapid urban growth has coincided with these regimes.
As for other points:
Memphis maintains a huge housing stock with an equal degree of diversity in its value.
Yards attached to houses are just as plentiful, then again, what ever happened to small neighborhood parks?
Traffic density on our streets is on many neighborhood streets is by no means greater than that found in the ‘burbs. Actually, the type of planning found in new suburban neighborhoods tends to concentrate all access onto one or two streets as points of egress. Many of Memphis’ older neighborhoods are built on the typical grid system which has been found to more evenly distribute traffic and thus lessen its overall impact.
Street crime is everywhere. The only time a relative or friend has ever had problems with crime actually occurred in a new neighborhood in Collierville while when their car was broken into. Another friend has never encountered any problems with criminal activity in their 8 years of residence on Main St. in Downtown Memphis.
Parties occur just as often in the ‘burbs. If you don’t believe me, check out the Germantown and Collierville PD’s records.
The taxes are a symptom of the very suburbanization we are talking about. In all fairness, taxes on those living outside incorporated boundaries should be equal to an average of all municipal taxes.
Often corruption is in the eye of the beholder. I happen to enjoy Redbird games and have been to numerous events in the Forum. I have yet to use the Germantown Civic Center, but pay for a portion of it through my own taxes.
Finally, MATA is not perfect. In fact it is far from it. MATA is attempting to develop a system that will have multiple transfer facilities throughout the county. Each center will serve a small area surrounding it with feeder busses that will be able to make their complete circuits in about 15 minutes. Express buses will then interconnect each transfer facility. This will dissolve the current hub and spoke system radiating from downtown. In a perfect universe several of these facilities will also be interconnected by light rail along the Poplar corridor. A similar system layout is functioning very well in Dallas and has received very good reviews, and more importantly, has been experiencing rapid growth in its ridership numbers. Sound nice doesn’t it? So what’s with MATA? Well to build this new system takes money. Seeing as MATA lacks a dedicated funding source (unlike many of a peer cities I might add) they can only retool the system at a rate that their budget will allow.
Very long post, thanks to those with the stamina to make it to the end.

Anonymous said...

Smart City often points out to solve the crack addiction rather than incarcerate people. Apply the same logic to people migrating out of Memphis. Liberals love to use the word 'hypocrisy'. Semms like a good case for it right here.

You say that 385 will be too crowded and 'lethal'. Yet, then you say 240 could have easily handled it! 240 is pretty crowded now. Again, talk about having it both ways!

I agree an interstate through the city would be best - I 40 should have continued straight through Midtown. That would have been the most direct and fuel efficient. Who stopped this and caused I40 to make a meandering path around the city?

BD Friend think it awful that a hwy encourages people to "work, to live, to shop" in a particular city when that city is Collierville. He makes no complaint about the author wanting 385 to be routed in a way to encourage people to work, live and shop in Memphis. Where does this expectation that the world revolves around Memphis come from?

Smart City - "the vast majority of Shelby County residents pay two property taxes" again being very decpetive as the "vast majority" of Shelby County residents are also Memphis residents but Smart City is trying to decieve knowing that most people say 'Shelby County resident" or "live in the county" to specifically mean an unincorporated area. Smart City was replying to Mike who was using my meaning.

turnerarch said "then again, what ever happened to small neighborhood parks?" Memphis street gangs took them over.

Anonymous said...

Two things:

1) someone pointed out that most Memphians have single family homes with yards. I was driving down Poplar yesterday and noticed neighborhoods full of single family homes and thought - you can have a yard in the city limits. Then I realized that someone is already living in those houses!. When you demand that the suburbanites come back into Memphis to reduce sprawl, where exactly do you expect them to live??? Is there empty land somewhere to build all of these new homes? OR do you expect more high rise apartments to take the influx? Your argument is that all those suburbanites should live inside the city limits and have everything they have in the suburbs. This simply isnt possible. There are too many people in the metro area to all fit in single family homes inside Memphis.

2) You say Shelby County schools should be compared to other suburban school districts. Well as a parent I do not have the choice of sending my kids to either SCS or to hamilton County (Chattanooga) schools. My choice is Memphis OR Shelby County. This is the comparison parents must make when deciding where to live if their job is in the Memphis area.

Anonymous said...

It is not just people moving out of Memphis , Memphis government is sprawling too. Have you not noticed the annexations?

These people must be controlled.. Round up citizens and move them back inside the parkways. Must have a pass to get out and must tell where going and when to return.

Then all the comrades will be happy or else.

Anonymous said...

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