Monday, January 30, 2006

Is The Memphis MPO Inherently Biased?

The Memphis Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) is one of those arcane groups that labor in the shadows of local government, but whose decisions fundamentally shape how our community grows.

That’s because its decisions have the power to fuel sprawl or determine if the urban core can compete with new commercial areas.

The Memphis MPO is Memphis in name only. Chaired by Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton, most of MPO members are from outside of the city limits, and in this role, they sign off on how tens of millions of dollars in federal transportation money are spent, and they set major road priorities for its work.

While the purpose of the federally-mandated MPOs is to serve as the planning vehicle for regional cooperation and coordination, a new study by the Metropolitan Policy Program of The Brookings Institution calls into question the basic fairness of MPOs, especially the one in Memphis.

“Decisions by MPOs have important ramifications for metropolitan growth patterns and, by implication, social and economic opportunity,” the report said. “Yet, the decisions are made by boards whose members are generally not elected to serve on the MPO. Further, MPOs are not required by law to have representational voting. The potential exists, therefore, for MPO decisions to be biased toward certain constituencies or locales at the expense of others.”

The report on 50 large MPOs in the U.S. concluded that Memphis has the third most unbalanced board. While the City of Memphis has 63 percent of the total population, it has only 16 percent of MPO members. Meanwhile, suburbs with 32 percent of the population control 79 percent of the vote.

In addition, Memphis was cited as one of the most racially unequal. Despite Memphis’ large African-American population, 84 percent of MPO’s members are white. “That MPO boards do not reflect the geographic or racial composition of the metropolitan populations they serve should be a cause for concern, especially given that MPOs were intended by the federal framers to be an essential conduit for implementing reforms and ensuring public accountability,” the report said.

There are ways that the Memphis MPO could be fairer and more representative. A free-standing organization devoted solely to transportation planning, all board members are appointed by various governments. It could follow the example of Portland, Oregon, which is the only free-standing MPO that has elections for its members.

Another option is weighted voting, which 16 of the 50 large MPOs use to make sure the central city has a number of votes in proportion to their share of the total population. That avoids the kinds of disparities that happen here, where the vote of the Memphis mayor can be cancelled out by the vote of the mayor of Olive Branch.

In light of these imbalances, it should be no surprise that MPO decisions are frequently skewed toward the suburbs. The makeup of the Memphis MPO powerfully demonstrates how this can happen:

• Governor of Tennessee, or his representative
• Governor of Mississippi, or his representative
• Commissioner, Tennessee Department of Transportation
• Executive Director, Mississippi Department of Transportation
• Mayor of Shelby County
• Mayors of Memphis, Germantown, Bartlett, Collierville, Millington, Lakeland and Arlington
• Mayor of Fayette County
• Mayor of every incorporated town in Fayette County
• President, DeSoto County Board of Supervisors
• Mayors of every incorporated town in DeSoto County
• Chair, Memphis Transit Authority
• Chair, Memphis and Shelby County Port Commission
• Chair, Memphis and Shelby County Airport Authority

In a recent list of the top 10 road priorities for the Memphis MPO, half of the projects were in the suburbs, and over the years, MPO funding has frequently contributed to eastward sprawl and responded to the call by developers in the “warehouse corridors” of southeast Shelby County for wider and wider roads.

Most sadly of all, because of suburban dominance on the local MPO, its attention to public transit is nonexistent. This means that not only does MATA not receive much-needed funding but MPO’s ability to push for better management and service is squandered.

Meanwhile, a recent proposal for light rail to Germantown and Collierville was bogged down when suburban interests voted for a study widely interpreted as an attempt to kill the project. After all, they represent commuters, not bus riders, and it shows in their voting.


Larry said...

"Meanwhile, a recent proposal for light rail to Germantown and Collierville was bogged down when suburban interests voted for a study widely interpreted as an attempt to kill the project. After all, they represent commuters, not bus riders, and it shows in their voting."

Actually you have it backwards. They're trying to keep it alive.

The idea of running a light rail by sharing the ROW with Norfolk-Southern along Poplar (thru G-town and C-ville) dies when NS refused to share the ROW.

As a result, MATA bumped up the Downtown-Airport line to the top of the list. The only problem is that the Downtown-Airport line is huge boondoggle. If built, it will set back any hope of a line out to G-town and C-ville YEARS!

Anonymous said...

Smart City hits home. It can never be said that this staff avoids an issue--just because it may be politically incorrect to address it.

BraveCordovaDem said...

Thanks for this imformative piece. So how could this body be changed? I would think that it would take an almost impossible process. This falls in line with other thinking, that Memphis should constantly stoop and bow to the burbs that it also supports.

turnerarch said...

This is a huge issue in our region. First, the MPO district can hardly claim to be "Metropolitan" at all. While the Memphis MPO boundaries include all of Shelby county, they overlap only a portion of northern DeSoto Co. and manage to extend into the very western fringe of Fayette Co. This definition of our metropolitan area is antiquated and should be extended to include all areas defined as part of the metropolitan area by the U.S. Census. This would include all or part of DeSoto, Tunica, Tate, and Marshall Counties in Mississippi, Shelby, Fayette, and Tipton Counties in Tennessee, and Crittenden County in Arkansas.
As for elected representation in the MPO, it has the ability of becoming a dangerous precedent. While I prefer to elect my representatives, I have little confidence in my fellow citizens in making educated choices for such an important decision. My main point of reference is the entrenchment of suburban development interests on the County Council. By electing officials to fill these position we may open the door for a full assault by such characters as an individual I will call "Rusty".
However, a definite shift is needed to create a more balanced representative body. I would suggest that few of your average citizens in the area even know there exists such a thing as the Memphis MPO, or have little more than a vague idea of what it is and the purpose it serves. An effort on the MPO’s part to raise its own visibility by taking defined positions on both individual projects and the overall pattern of development might enhance its own ability to foster a greater degree of understanding throughout the region.

While I cannot speak for the overall position that Collierville and Germantown have taken concerning the east light rail line, conversations I've held with Mayor Goldsworthy would indicate a lack of enthusiasm for such a project running through Germantown.

Smart City Consulting said...

Larry: Insiders to the process say just the opposite about the intentions of Germantown and Collierville officials. Time will tell. And as usual, we can't say it any better or nearly as good as turnerarch. SC

Larry said...

Unless a new proposal for light rail out to G-town and C-ville has come up in the past few months, there is no viable plan for LRT to those two cities to kill!

MATA's initial plan for an east corridor (later changed the name to the southeast corridor), died when Norfolk-Southern refused to share the ROW. It may still be there on paper, but it is dead. MATA had (and still has) no clue how to work around that obstacle so it immediately shifted its focus to the Downtown-Airport line.

The proposed Downtown-Airport is in serious trouble ... so the only thing the new MPO study might kill is that proposal.

If the recall for Willie is successful, you can expect the Downtown-Airport line wither on the vine. A new administration isn't going to spend $100 million of Memphis' taxpayer dollars on a project that has a projected operating and maintenance deficit of $10 million/yr.

Even if Willie survives the recall and stays in office, it is still in serious trouble. He's going to have to lay off union workers to balance this year's budget ... So taking on another big budget project while workers are being laid office won't sit well the city council.

So back to my point, unless a new proposal has come up recently, there is no LRT to G-town and C-ville to kill. It could only serve to kill the Downtown-Airport boondoggle which does need to be killed and/or say that the SE corridor should be priority if one if built at all.

Martha Lott, MPO Coordinator said...

Martha Lott, Memphis MPO Coordinator

Response to Smart City Consulting posting on January 30, 2006 at 7:40 PM titled: Is The Memphis MPO Inherently Biased?

The Memphis MPO, based on the 2000 Census, is comprised of all of Shelby County, the western four miles of Fayette County, Tennessee, and the northern twelve miles of DeSoto County, Mississippi. Federal regulation 23 C.F.R. 450.308 (a) specifies that the MPO boundary must encompass the urbanized area and the contiguous geographic area that is likely to become urbanized in the twenty-year period of the Long-Range Transportation Plan (LRTP). The Census Bureau defines an urbanized area as an area with 50,000 people or more with census block or block group densities of at least 1,000 people per square mile and surrounding census blocks that have at least 500 people per square mile. A boundary expansion study was conducted in 2004 and the boundary was expanded to meet this requirement.

The mission of the Memphis MPO is to encourage and promote the development of a balanced, efficient, and affordable regional transportation system to meet the needs of people and goods moving within and through the region, while minimizing the effects of transportation-related air pollution.

The blog stated that Memphis has the 3rd most unbalanced board out of fifty MPOs reviewed:

As outlined in 23 C.F.R. 450.306 Section (i) “The voting membership of an MPO policy body designated/redesignated subsequent to December 18, 1991, and serving a TMA, must include representation of local elected officials, officials of agencies that administer or operate major modes or systems of transportation, e.g., transit operators, sponsors of major local airports, maritime ports, rail operators, etc. (including all transportation agencies that were included in the MPO on June 1, 1991), and appropriate State officials.”

The Transportation Policy Board (TPB) governs the Memphis MPO. The TPB is composed of 25 members including the governors of Tennessee and Mississippi; executives of each municipality and county in the MPO area; and representatives of the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT), the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT), the Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA), the Memphis and Shelby County Airport Authority (MSCAA), and the Memphis and Shelby County Port Commission (MSCPC). The TPB is responsible for policy direction for the Memphis MPO. Final decision-making responsibilities for major transportation planning and programming issues is vested in the TPB.

The TPB is assisted by five committees and one adhoc committee each charged with making recommendations to the TPB in their areas of expertise. They are:
· Engineering and Technical Committee - The ETC is composed of two (2) representatives from the City of Memphis Engineer’s office and the Shelby County Engineer’s office, and the engineer, planner or other designated person from each governmental entity or major provider of transportation services in the Memphis MPO area. The Departments of Transportation for Tennessee and Mississippi shall each have a designated member along with each respective state divisional office of FHWA and the regional representative of FTA. For transportation planning purposes, the West Memphis, Arkansas, Metropolitan Planning Coordinator shall also be a member of this committee. Ex-Officio members of the ETC include the engineer, planner or designated person from Marshall, Tate and Tunica counties in Mississippi. The Chairperson of this Committee shall be the Memphis MPO Coordinator.

· Citizen Advisory - The Committee assist the MPO in the development of community outreach efforts and participate in community outreach programs to inform and educate the general public on issues related to transportation planning. Each governmental entity represented on the TPB shall appoint a member to this Committee. Each jurisdiction shall have at least one representative. Municipalities or counties with populations greater than 50,000 may appoint one additional member when the population exceeds the next 50,000 thresholds as certified by the U.S. Bureau of Census.

· Air Quality - Members include those members of the ETC within or having jurisdiction over the MPO as a designated maintenance and/or non-attainment of ambient air quality for particulate, carbon monoxide or ozone, including a representative from the West Memphis MPO. Membership shall also include a representative from any local air pollution control program within the designated maintenance or non-attainment area, the respective state agency (ies) responsible for air quality control programs, the regional representative(s) of the EPA, MATA and members of the ETC whose responsibility include air quality and are in a jurisdiction within a designated particulate, carbon monoxide, ozone or nitrogen oxide maintenance or non-attainment air quality area as determined by the EPA.

· Freight - Membership will be comprised of representatives of the major providers of transportation resources and modes that provide freight movement and the users of those modes of transportation. The Metropolitan Planning Organization shall work closely with local and regional chambers of commerce and freight and logistic organizations to develop a comprehensive committee.

· Transportation Safety - assist the TPB and all committees of the MPO on strategies in planning and implementation of transportation projects as related to transportation safety and shall promote coordination of traffic safety programs and initiatives among member jurisdictions.

· Bicycle and Pedestrian (adhoc) - assist in developing plans, programs, and projects related to bicycle and pedestrian activities.

The Smart City Consulting stated, “The Memphis Urban Area Metropolitan Plan Organization (MPO) is one of those arcane groups that labor in the shadows of local government”:

The Memphis MPO consists of the Transportation Policy Board and five (5) standing committees in which all meetings are published and open to the public. The MPO provides a 15 to 45 day public review and comment period on all action items. Any action items that the Transportation Policy Board acts upon are published in the Commercial Appeal, the Tri-State Defender, the DeSoto County Times, the Fayette County Review and the La Prensa Latina. In addition, the action items are placed in the public library systems of Shelby and Fayette County TN, and DeSoto County, MS.

The Brookings Institution report that Smart City Consulting used for this blog was based on data gathered from various websites in 2004.

On August 20, 2004, the MPO Transportation Policy Board adopted a revised set of By-Laws. In the By-Laws under Article VIII – Voting - A motion of the TPB shall be approved by a majority vote of the members present on all issues before the TPB except those designated as a “Critical Issue.” A “Critical Issue” may only be requested by a member in relation to action by the TPB on the adoption or amendment to the following items:

1. Long-Range Transportation Plan
2. Transportation Improvement Program
3. Prospectus of the MPO
4. MPO By-Laws
5. Unified Planning Work Program

A “Critical Issue” vote requires 51% of all eligible votes to carry. A critical vote is rarely called because Board members are charged with representing the region as well as their own jurisdictions. The critical vote was put in place, however, because of population concerns. When a critical vote is called, the City of Memphis holds 44% of the votes, Shelby County has 14% and all other members have between 1% and 4%.

The racial composition of the TPB is determined by the race of the elected official. The residents in his/her specific jurisdiction voted the chief elected official of each jurisdiction into office. The racial composition of the Engineering and Technical Committee (ETC) is determined by the race of the head planner/engineer in each jurisdiction. The racial composition of the Citizens’ Advisory Committee is determined by the race of the person appointed by each TPB member that appoints citizens to the committee.

The last comment I will address is the statement, “In a recent list of the top ten road priorities for the Memphis MPO, half of the projects were in the suburbs, and over the years MPO funding contributed to eastward sprawl and responded to the call by developers in the “warehouse corridors” of southeast Shelby County for wider and wider roads.”

The Memphis MPO’s 2006-2008 Transportation Improvement Program (TIP), which is the three-year planning document of the MPO, has two funding programs (for the Tennessee portion of the MPO) through which local projects are ranked and funded. Currently, 65% of the funded projects are within the City of Memphis. As a regional planning organization all areas must be examined and projects ranked by a set of nine criteria. This determines which projects are most critical, and thus, funded.

MATA has three projects funded through Congestion Mitigation Air Quality (CMAQ) funds. These are included in the 65% above as they are in the City of Memphis. They also have sixteen additional projects listed in the TIP under transit funding categories 3037, 5037 and 5309.

Additional Information - The Memphis MPO is in the development stages of the Long-Range Transportation Plan – Destination 2030. The MPO just completed the first series of public meetings (9 meetings held) to seek input and concerns from the citizen within the MPO area on transportation related issues. In an effort to generate public interest in the planning process, the MPO worked in conjunction with the Shelby County Director of Communications and Public Affairs to disseminate information about the meetings to regional media outlets, neighborhood organizations and special interest groups. The meetings were featured on two news programs and in articles in at least three news publications. They were also advertised in all of the publications listed in the section above. Additionally, letters and packets of information were sent to local community development corporations and neighborhood associations.
Destination 2030 will outline the policies and actions that the Memphis MPO area will follow in meeting its transportation needs for the next quarter-century. The plan will consider not only vehicular needs but also will address air transportation, water transportation, railway, mass transit, and active transportation such as walking and bicycling. Air quality issues also will be considered.
We ask all citizens of the Memphis MPO area to complete the survey on needs and issues which can be found on our website at or contact the MPO office, 379-7854, and a survey will be mailed to you.

Citizens can also go to the following link within the website to view the TIP criteria for ranking regional projects, the Public Involvement Plan (PIP) and other MPO plans. The TIP information is on pages 45 and 76 within the TIP document.

Thank you.

Smart City Consulting said...


We appreciate the lengthy response, and we were aware of the intricacies of the MPO. That said, I'm sure most citizens would find it interesting for such a low-profile agency to have such a major impact on the future of our city. But back to the core question: Why is the MPO unbalanced to urban interests? Why do the suburban interests have a disproportionate voice in these critical decisions? Wouldn't weighted voting be fairer? Why are African-Americans so poorly represented in the overall decision-making?

All of this information is helpful, but it doesn't seem to answer the fundamental questions that lie at the heart of this analysis by the Brookings Institution and which deserve to have broader understanding by our citizens.

Thanks again.

Smart City Consulting said...

One more question: When will the MPO devote more energy to a first-class public transit system, rather than just building highways? And when you say that 65 percent of the projects are within Memphis, are you talking about projects in the suburbs, which returns us to our point about public transit. There was a time when MPO listed Germantown Road as a "Memphis project," when clearly, it was a suburban sprawl project from the get-go.

Regulations have required that these road projects evaluate context sensitive issues, environment, alternative transportation, etc., for some time, but the interests of the traffic planner and real estate developers have remained paramount. When context sensitive design is regular part of every MPO project, that will show that real progress is being made.

Finally, if you take all of the MPO funded projects of the past 5-7 years and total the costs, what percentage is within the urban core and what percentage is on the suburban ring and in the county's smaller towns?

turnerarch said...

Since we apparently have the MPO's attention, more issues/questions:
In expanding the boundaries of the MPO, I still find it far to small in its district overlay. Tunica Co., according to the 2004 census figures, has a grand total population of 10,066. Yet the county employs around 17,000 individuals. If Tunica is obviously an integral part to our regions economy, why is it not included in local transportation planning?
Your expansion criteria stated "...that the MPO boundary must encompass the urbanized area and the contiguous geographic area that is likely to become urbanized in the twenty-year period of the Long-Range Transportation Plan (LRTP)". In the case of the Memphis MPO, the Census Bureau now includes Tate Co. and Senatobia along with it as a singular economic entity. I am aware the Tate Co. only holds 25,000 people at present, but is it no less important to begin planning now as to how this area will become better integrated into the greater Memphis economic engine?
A fact that the Census Bureau has failed to face is that urbanization is no longer a continuous expansion of existing urban areas as it was in the first half of the twentieth century. It is not uncommon for the process to simply jump an expanse of rural terrain and yet the connection between the old and new is the same. A quick glance at middle Tennessee is very telling. Many cities, such as Franklin, Lebanon, and Murfreesboro are separated from Nashville by some degree of rural terrain, thus meaning they are not part of the "contiguous geographic area that is likely to become urbanized in the twenty-year period". Yet, these towns have experienced very rapid growth due in large part to those who make a daily commute to Nashville. Development centered around these towns based on existing infrastructure and the ideal since of established community (Main St., Courthouse Square, ect..) that developers used to attract an influx of new arrivals. These towns are integral in developing that regions transportation system, and yet those same communities were only included as part of the Nashville MPO as late as 1992. The inclusion of said suburban entities occurred after the growth rate had accelerated, thus the MPO's effectiveness was limited from the start.
There is a strong correlation. Towns such as Somerville, Covington, and Holly Springs are poised to be the Memphis regions own set of distant suburbs, yet they are not included in our MPO. How can the organization be pro-active- the only method in planning for development, if being integrated in the MPO occurs after the urbanization process and its associated patterns is already well under way?

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I suppose every person must read it.