Sunday, May 11, 2008

Putting A Price On The Suburban Commute

The Tennessee Legislature is flirting with the idea of toll roads to fill the gap in road funding.

We cast our vote for Highway 385.

It’s the most expensive gift ever given in this county to developers and to sprawl, and it’s time to make them pay a fair share of the costs associated with it.

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. 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.

For 385, there was the obligatory traffic engineering 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 of the economic cost 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.

As for 385, already, the daily traffic count is about 250,000 vehicles. In the future, with much of Highway 385 serving as I-269 - the unjustifiable 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 left.

In an 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. The layer of city out there is not the result of population growth, but population movement, and as we’ve seen, the cost of that to the public sector is financially unsustainable.

Right now, with a $1 toll, the Highway 385 toll road would generate $87 million a year, and in a perfect world, it would be split between state government to pay for alternative transportation, between 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.


LeftWingCracker said...

It's my understanding that we're getting BOTH the I-69 that is going to loop in from the northwest and replace Midtown I-240 as well as the I-269 loop.

I would love to see a toll on the entirety of the Tennessee portion of I-269, but take it a step further: COMPLETE the loop, forcing Arkansas to participate in building TWO new Mississippi River bridges, partnering with Tennessee on the northern bridge, and Mississippi on the Southern bridge.

This would enable us to finally replace the aging Memphis-Arkansas Bridge.

midtowner said...

I always thought it was silly to build roads for people to leave the city and then complain when they left.

If you put a toll on 385, then more people will just take more time to use the streets. That, in turn, will put more pollution in the air ... and for a city that's having trouble with the EPA, we don't need that.

You're not going to get people to ride the bus or trolley or light rail as long as they don't go where people want to go. We need to toss out our current public system and start over.

Anonymous said...

I read a report about how well the top 50 cities in America are prepared for an oil crisis. Of course we didn't do so well. Here is the main jist of the report-

“Some local economies will clearly become more attractive in this uncertain future,” said
Karlenzig. “Cities and metro areas that are maintaining and developing alternatives for
residents and business if weather, political events or terrorism disrupt the lifeblood of our
economy will prosper over cities that rely almost exclusively on single-occupancy autos
to get people to work, school and shopping.”
At the bottom of the ranking are cities that largely lack public transit, telecommuting and
walking or biking options. The bottom ten cities in the ranking were:
41. Virginia Beach, VA; 42. Forth Worth, Texas; 43. Nashville, TN; 44. Arlington, TX; 45.
Jacksonville, FL; 46. Indianapolis, IN; 47. Memphis, TN; 48. Louisville, KY; 49. Tulsa,
OK; 50. Oklahoma City, OK
“There are cities with less than 1-2% public transit commute ridership, compared to New
York City, which has close to a 55% rate,” Karlenzig said. “It’s no mystery who will be
feeling the pain of high gas prices the most. Some employers and potential employees
considering relocating to the Sunbelt and other ‘car-only’ cities should take into account
the total expenses such locations will have on their budgets and employees.”

Anonymous said...

People moved out east long before there was 385 for a variety of reasons - it is much much cheaper to buy land and/or a house, for example. Taxes are lower. These are demonstrably true facts. Government exists, not to engineer where people should live, but to serve the people where they choose to live. 385 became necessary because of the eastern movement of the population. I hate that Memphis is hollowing out. Its bad for the city and the area, this is true. But government exists to serve the people and shouldn't be blamed for building a road that was obviously needed (I hate the thing only because they didn't build it big enough). Its Memphis' version of GA 400, which was so badly needed when it was finally built (and expanded a few short years later). GA 400 has made like infinitely easier on those folks who choose to live North of ATL, and its construction was entirely proper. Same for 385. I hate sprawl too, but roads are needed. And as for public transport, its too late. That should have been built years ago; they could never build it to go where it would need to go to be useful anymore

Smart City Consulting said...

LWC: We are in fact getting I-69 and I-269. The former is the one supported by city and county governments, and the latter is the one put in for development interests both here and North Mississippi. And we sign on to your proposal wholeheartedly.

Anonymous 2:35: We can't agree that 385 is needed, and even if it is, we don't think that traffic engineers should be casting the deciding vote on the quality of life, strength of urban neighborhoods, etc. Government policy always should aim to make the highest use of existing infrastructure and to make the tax structure more coherent. 385 undermines both, and that's why we favor the toll. The cat's out of the bag, but there's no reason all the rest of us have to pay for folks who want to live all the way to Fayette County, and we are going to have to pay for the unsustainable growth that will naturally occur around the 385 interchanges.

Anonymous said...

I'm fine with making it a toll road, but I still think you are incorrect in your contention that 385 caused the sprawl. The sprawl was already there. Your comment about traffic engineers is just another way of saying that government should use its power to attempt to force people to live in urban areas in which they do not wish to live because you feel that is socially desirable. I don't think that is appropriate. Anyway, have you ever met anyone who said, "I was going to live in Midtown but, man now that 385 is built I'm moving to Fayette county?" Of course you havent. That road didn't change anyone's mind about where they wanted to live.

Anonymous said...

no. but incessant crime, corrupt politicians, increasing taxes with no demonstrable return on investment, a failing school system, and a steady decrease in the percieved 'quality of life' for most of us outside the Parkways has meant that the yellow brick road by any designation leads to the greener suburbs.

again, 'You say SPRAWL like its a bad word'?

Midtowner said...

I must agree with anon. I knew lots of people living out in Collierville well before 385 was built. 385 only makes life easier for them and it may have been the deciding factor for others as to WHERE to move to but not the fact they were moving.

Memphis needs to stop annexing and solve its own problems. It needs to make itself attractive.

Smart City Consulting said...

We didn't say that 385 caused sprawl (or we didn't mean to). 385 is a gift to sprawl from state government. Let us put it as simple as we can, sprawl is bad.

It is financially unsustainable, it hollows out the city and squanders the infrastructure that we've already paid for. And there's a direct line between the money thrown away on sprawl-related problems and the lack of money to be spent on crime prevention, schools, neighborhood revitalization, etc. These are not two disconnected events: one flows directly from the other. It's also why the tax structure should be rationalized so that citizens of Memphis pay a comparable tax rate as Collierville

Anonymous said...

your last point I absolutely agree with. I may not see living in Collierville as inherently bad as you do, but Memphis residents should not be at a tax disadvantage. That's why its so good to see some of the proposals out of the city counsel recently. But look, sprawl bad or good is a natural reaction to 1) residents' desire to get more for their money, from their house and from their government and 2) a reaction to the complete and utter failure of memphis government to handle its business and make Memphis an attractive place to 1) own a business and 2) live and raise kids, if you have em. So you see 385 as a gift to sprawl. I see it as a gift to the citizens who have made the entirely rational decision to live outside the city limits. Sure, the state could have not built it, and we could have kept it difficult to get from out east to downtown, but I don't see what purpose that would serve. You can't force people to live in a badly run city by ignoring the need for new roads. On the flip side, if this city were run well, if it was an attractive place for businesses to relocate/form, and if we had professionals running the schools, you couldn't keep people out, no matter how many fancy new malls we built in Collierville. BTW, this is the first time I have ever commented on here but I love your blog. You guys do great work (even though I disagree with you on this one); if the leaders of this city thought like you all I might even move inside the city . . .

Smart City Consulting said...


Let us make this clear. We don't see living in Collierville as inherently bad. Every one has the right to make choices that are valid in their own eyes and reasonable for them, and we don't intend to sound like we are demeaning anyone for that. In fact, one of us grew up in Collierville back when he could walk from the western city limit to the eastern city limit in 30 minutes.

What we are saying is that as people move farther and farther east, it's not our job to subsidize their personal decisions. For example, Memphians largely picked up the increasing debt of county government which was caused by the relocation of people. Again, that's why we call for rationalizing our tax responsibilities, so that residents of Collierville, Germantown, AND Memphis pay taxes for comparable services, and that regional programs and services are on the regional tax base (county government).

If we have a quarrel with Cville, it is the lack of understanding by its elected officials that downtowns are absolutely crucial, whether they are downtown Memphis or the downtown (square) in Collierville. There needs to be higher level of support for the square because it makes Collierville truly distinctive and differentiates it. Also, the competition caused by our state sales tax laws put cities in competition to build malls that really aren't justified by the size of our market. One of the real strengths in Portland is that there is no local sales tax, so cities aren't constantly chasing big boxes and malls as a way to fund city services.

Thanks for reading and thanks for your comments. Also, we appreciate the encouragement.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Smart City on this one. Those of us who chose to live in the city are forced to subsidize not only suburban sprawl, but we are also taxed for upkeep of the city's infrastructure - roads, bridges, etc. that many of these suburbanites avail themselves of everyday when they commute to work within the city limits. They bear no cost for the upkeep of city streets because they pay no city taxes. For half a century in this country, government subsidized road projects have made the suburban life possible - especially for the middle class. However, with the recent rise in gas prices I wonder how much longer the SUV driving/suburban lifestyle will be sustainable except for the very wealthy or for those willing to work closer to home. Working closer to home being an option, of course, only if you can actually find comparable work in Fayette County. Good luck.

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