Wednesday, March 25, 2009
I-269: Road To Hell Without The Good Intentions
Here’s something we don’t get to say too much: city and county governments were absolutely, completely right.
We thought this as we listened to the Saturday morning discussion at the “Inbound for Memphis: Speeding Toward I-269” forum organized and hosted by the Coalition for Livable Communities with support from Community Development Council, Urban Land Institute, Federal Reserve Bank and Community Foundation of Greater Memphis.
In the end, it’s unmistakable that our challenge is for our city to get prepared for an interstate that has no serious transportation value, but exists only because of the political gamesmanship by Mississippi politicos driven by an intensity to enrich the development industry.
Back when I-269 was proposed, it was almost universally opposed in Shelby County, most notably by both Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton and Shelby County Mayor Jim Rout. Both said that the interstate looping around the edge of Shelby County spelled nothing but problems for Memphis.
Eventually, some Memphis Chamber of Commerce officials flipped and supported I-269, ostensibly to keep some prominent developers happy, including some interested in the proposed rail yard in Fayette County and others more interested in opening up development of their land in North Mississippi.
Their most compelling argument, in their opinion, was that I-269 would divert truck traffic that would otherwise travel on I-69 through Memphis. There was only one problem: our trucking companies said they would never take a 45-mile detour when they can drive straight through town.
A Lott Of Manipulation
While the mayors thought they had blocked I-269, former Republican U.S. Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi - in league with former Republican House of Representative Whip Tom DeLay of Texas – trumped Tennessee officials when Mr. Lott passed legislation that limited Tennessee’s control over I-269’s routing.
Meanwhile, Mr. DeLay suggested that the I-69 Coalition should hire a well-connected lobbyist to represent them in the halls of Congress. That highly-qualified person just happened to be his brother, who would eventually get paid just under $1 million for his services.
Left with little option, our mayors relented, and Senator Lott was extolled at the ribbon-cutting for the project, saying “This is a ribbon-cutting for the beginning of a project. This is just the first leg.” Actually, the needless interstate highway is more like an arm and a leg, adding millions of dollars in construction costs to the federal interstate budget and an equal number of miles to our community’s unsustainable lifestyle.
Talking The Talk
If a picture says a thousand words, the map of I-269 says tens of thousands. It’s so obviously blatant that it’s slicing its way through North Mississippi solely to open up development opportunities for the privileged few. And despite assurances by some highly competent city and county planners in the area, if the past is the best predictor of the future, it’s clear that politics will win out and little is preordained except more and more sprawl.
Wrapping I-269 in a shroud of terms like smart growth, knowledge economy jobs, New Urbanism and open space protection, supporters of the interstate suggest with straight faces that Memphis will benefit from new economic growth and development as a result of the new interstate. Our past teaches us that it is more likely that the highway will be characterized by unwalkable, car-centric sameness.
Someone from North Mississippi said in an article in The Commercial Appeal that the task now is to apply smart growth principles to I-269. We’re not sure when we’ve heard such a contradiction of terms. It reminds us of the story on NPR about the developer proudly boasting of the region’s most sustainable residential development – green energy, walking trails, etc. The only problem was that it was an hour commute to New York and an hour and half commute to Philadelphia.
Co-opting The Words
As the always wise Kip Bergstrom said on Smart City: “There’s a very high risk that folks will launch projects that are meant to really preserve the dead ideas. We call that managed decline or managed adaptive decline. It takes on some of the words and phrases of a different way of thinking about stuff, but it’s just aimed at preserving the status quo.”
I-269 is the physical embodiment of it, using some of the magic words – smart growth, efficient transportation and air quality attainment - to preserve the status quo for the development industry. “Building a highway bridge across the Columbia River in a time that calls for investment in transit is a clear failure to understand the emerging conditions of oil scarcity, global warming, of the potential of transit to make much bigger labor markets than could ever be made by auto,” said Mr. Bergstrom in a comparison that could have just as easily been I-269.
According to an interesting presentation by John Lawrence, our metro has 27 square feet in retail for each person, which is higher than the U.S. average and eight times more than the United Kingdom. I-269 will undoubtedly produce miles of strip malls, fast food restaurants and gas stations as each jurisdiction along the route fights for the biggest share of sales taxes.
Let us say this clearly and unequivocably: there is no economic or social benefit to Memphis as a result of I-269. Don’t believe the propaganda or the breathless media headlines.
Here’s the thing: Memphis’ ability to compete in the new economy is undercut by the hollowing out of the middle class, by the worst economic segregation of the 50 largest metros, by the quickening loss of college-educated 25-34 year-olds, a 15% house vacancy rate that’s doubled since 2000 and 20% of Memphis families living on less than $8,700 a year.
These are the forces driving Memphis’ trajectory. There is nothing in I-269 that does anything to improve these trends that are threatening the future of our city. But, more to the point and despite the denials of our suburban cities, the trends of Memphis also will in fact determine the future of the entire region.
It’s About Policies
If Memphis must live with the reality of the problems that are exacerbated by I-269, we must do more than all pledge our commitment to regional planning. More to the point, we must change policies so that the interstate does in fact mitigate its negative impact.
For example, we’re said previously that I-269 and Tennessee 385 should be toll roads. They would produce more than $100 million a year that could be invested in strategies to strengthen our core city and to make Memphis a city of choice.
There are other innovations like a higher sales tax along the route to establish a tax-sharing program that could direct money into programs to improve Memphis neighborhoods. Or perhaps there’s a way to pass impact fees and sustainability guidelines for development along the interstate route, to set up land trusts and to require equal investments in public transit.
A recent CEOs for Cities briefing paper set it out in compelling terms:
1) When metropolitan areas are economically segregated, every problem becomes harder to address.
2) Suburban sprawl has been an engine of economic segregation.
3) Infill development increases the possibility for stable integrated neighborhood.
It’s The Metro, Stupid
If we must invest our taxes in a boondoggle like I-269, it is not unreasonable for us to demand that infill development and public transit should receive equal attention. Our suburbs don’t think this is their problem, but as the briefing paper points out, 37% of suburbs lost population in the Nineties and the percentage of residents in “poor” neighborhoods has doubled.
In a perfect world, our local and state officials would simply turn down the federal money for I-269, calling Mississippi's bluff as it is faced with the interstate version of an oxbow lake. Perhaps, it's not too late to call on our leaders to say enough is enough and make the most important decision facing them - doing what's right for Memphis.
After all, I-269 exists because of politics. That's why we think the answer needs to be found in the same place.
These are difficult times for the Memphis metro – let’s say it again, metro. Unlike most other metro areas, the cancerous problems that threaten our economic health are regional and not just the problems of the city. Unless we start to figure out how to avoid self-indulgent projects like I-269 and make the investments that strengthen our entire region so that it is prepared for the fundamental restructuring of the economy that is well under way, we will prove that the road to hell is indeed paved with intentions that aren’t always good.