Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Et Tu Sixty-Nine, Part II

Present transportation policies are critical to creating the tax burden that drives people out of Memphis.

While density is one of those things that cause people’s eyes to immediately glaze over, it’s a factor that drives everything in government – from quality of service to the tax rate.

As we pointed out a year ago, within the 1970 city limits of Memphis, there are today 28% fewer people. This reduced density results in services being delivered over an area with fewer people, driving up costs and ultimately driving up taxes.

It doesn’t stop there for Memphis taxpayers. They are caught in a vise of taxes caused by the reduced density in the urban core and the cost of suburban sprawl. In other words, for 30 years, Memphians have been forced to subsidize policies that have eroded their own city.


That’s at the heart of what is wrong with transportation policy and so many public decisions here. There’s no sense that choices are being made. As Shelby County Government invested $1.5 billion to open up the greenfields of unincorporated Shelby County, it was in fact making the choice to fuel the decline of the urban core.

Of course, Memphis City Council members acted as co-conspirators since their approval was required for projects and zoning changes with its “extraterritorial jurisdiction,” as local government calls it. Regular people would say that Council members have to approve projects outside of the Memphis city limits for three or five miles.

Acting as puppets of the development and homebuilding industries, City Council rubber stamped project after project with no thought that they too were making a choice. They were in fact choosing development on the edge rather than redevelopment of the core.

Jared Diamond wrote in his book, Collapse, about how “societies choose to fail or succeed.” In other words, sprawl did not just happen in Shelby County. It was a choice. The suffocating county government debt did not just happen. It was a choice. The hollowing out of the urban core did not just happen. It was a choice.

Voting For Their Own City’s Decline

Diamond describes in his best-seller how civilizations that formerly flourished made choices that doomed them to catastrophe, and many of these bad decisions were tied to the squandering of resources, to ignoring trouble signs that the environment emits and to the cutting down of too many trees.

Using his yardstick, the threats to our small corner of Western culture seem obvious. They are seen in choices in favor of rapid population movement, degradation of the environment and instability of government.

For more than a decade, when Memphis City Council routinely approved any development within the 3-5 mile zone outside of the city limits, it never had the sense that it was making a choice. Developers wanted more development, and these areas were outside of the city limits, so there was no perceived cost in giving them what they asked for.

Actually, every vote on one of the developments in this area should have been weighed as a choice -- to shift public investments to the suburban fringe rather than spend them on strengthening the urban core and protecting the public infrastructure already paid for there.


Meanwhile, across Civic Center Plaza, the Shelby County Board of Commissioners voted time after time to approve every development placed on its agenda, its members never had a sense that they were making a choice -- to fuel sprawl and set in motion their own financial decline, cuts in public services and erosion of their ability to take a leadership role in the community.

Like many of the societies described in Diamond’s book, Shelby County made the choice to ignore the warning signs, always believing that the flow of money was endless, short-term benefits were as good as long-term ones and its political power was unshakeable.

Shelby County chose to see sprawl as “normal” and beyond its control. It called it “growth,” when it was no growth at all, but a massive subsidized There is no real growth in Shelby county because population increases are essentially births over deaths, not the result of an influx of new residents.

To understand the cost of the choices made in favor of sprawl, just do the math: every new single family detached house valued at $175,000 costs Shelby County Government more than $4,000 a year for 20 years in public services, primarily schools and roads.

It takes about 6,000 square feet of commercial/industrial development to offset the deficit to Shelby County that is produced by one residential unit. (This assumes of course that the commercial/industrial development is paying taxes in the first place, rather than receiving a tax freeze.)

Even Roses Have Thorns

Of course, it’s not just transportation policy that suffers from the lack of a clear, comprehensive analysis. Notably, there are the analyses conducted by City of Memphis before it annexes an area.

It’s not about choice at all. It’s about the rosiest scenarios – assuming no decline in the areas or exodus of residents – but more to the point, they never take into consideration the impact on existing neighborhoods of taking in new area. Instead, the exercise is about determining the amount of revenues and the cost of city services, and the answer is that in time, the annexation is a money maker for city government.

But they haven’t been. They have in fact diverted money to pay for infrastructure and services for the new areas of Memphis while the urban core received less attention and money. And as changes take place in the new area, as in Hickory Hill, city government has compounded the scope of the challenges facing it.

It’s essentially the same thing done in transportation planning here. There’s never a new road and more lanes of traffic that can’t be justified by engineers who make their living off such projects. It’s all about traffic flow, congestion and travel times and rows and rows of numbers.

Faux Planning

Unfortunately, it’s never about the impact that building a highway on the fringes of our community will have on our existing city and the infrastructure we’ve already paid for. Like annexation, it is at its essence a false equation and a faux exercise in planning.

In the end, the seminal question of Collapse is: How can society best avoid destroying itself?

The seminal question in our community is how do we create a balanced approach to decisions – weighing all factors rather than just the justifications of special interests – and how do we treat every decision as what it is – a choice.

Tomorrow: Et Tu Sixty-Nine, Part 3


Richard Thompson said...

Roads are double-edged.

Where I'm from the interstate destroyed close-knit communities but it opened up the doors of economic growth. Something always dies for something else to grow. Or does it?

I-269 doesn't have to spell the death of Memphis, especially if we don't allow it. Folks are getting all alarmist, worried about more white folks or those who can move leaving the urban core behind.

Well, while we're worrying, what are we doing to improve the quality of life to encourage people to invest in Memphis?

I believe that projects like the Memphis Greenline will be one of the reasons that people move into Memphis. We forget. We can highlight, promote, become activists for this great city instead of merely being alarmists.

It's not that we don't need to be cautious. But we simply waste too much time lamenting instead of scheming, planning and banding together. We need more housing/development incentives in the urban core. We just need to double up.

Smart City Consulting said...


Here, roads are only single-edged because they are driven by a special interest lobby.

If I-269 is to be built, in return, Memphis should get funds for a high-quality public transit, for neighborhood revitalization, etc. It's a negotiation process, not a done deal, and our elected officials need to set out to get something in return for it being build.

People aren't going to move back because of the Memphis Greenline, in our opinion, but it will help. You've got to invest in the urban core and in neighborhoods. And as usual, the Greenline could only be done if it found private funding, but there's always public funding for more roads.

As for us, we believe we need to sound the alarm and not simply assume that somehow we'll make the best of this very bad situation.

As we said, Memphis absolutely has no margin for error, and our current transportation policies are anchored in erroneous planning and justifications.

We agree with you that we need to get as organized as the asphalt lobby if we expect to win this fight and get the focus back where it should be - on Memphis and its future.

Smart City Consulting said...

PS: By the way, this isn't about white folks. This is about the hollowing out of the middle class in Memphis - black, white, whatever. The exodus out of Memphis is now middle income African-American famlies, and that's a problem.

A successful city in our opinion is defined as one that has the presence of the middle class. Right now, the African-American middle class is moving to DeSoto County, where the percentage of black population has doubled in seven years.

As we have said so often, Memphis is about building on our strength -which is African-American talent - and we need to keep it here, and like Atlanta, we should not be afraid of saying we are intentional about being a center for African-American talent. That in a nutshell is the major plank of our economic development.

As we have said, if we don't do something about transportation policies and correct our tax policy, there's really not much reason for middle income families to stay in Memphis.

Finally, if we are to believe that something has to die for something to grow, we are treading on dangerous sands. Cities aren't plants. If we allow Memphis to die, the entire region dies.

Richard Thompson said...

Yes, but any transportation policy--even high speed rail--could "threaten" Memphis.

And sure people are going to DeSoto but we don't know if they are only coming from Shelby Co. It's false to assume that they are.

Lastly, people will come to Memphis and love Memphis because the city has a story to tell if it would simply do just that.

Smart City Consulting said...


The IRS data shows us that the people locating in DeSoto County are largely from Memphis.

And we're not even talking about light rail. At our normal pace around here, we'll get to that in the 22nd century. At this point, we just need a well-managed, high-functioning public transit system that connects Memphians with job centers.

Aaron said...

Cancerous American suburban sprawl is fueled by the collective greed of the consumer. Here in Memphis and in other Southern cities, the developers have not only reaped the benefits of greed but have cashed in on fear and prejudice. It's a profitable cycle worth repeating.

Sprawl is merely the ugly manifestation or consequence of our behaviors.

In tandem with getting a more organized voice against I-269 we need walk people through where their choices lead them and their communities. They need to understand their part in this too. At some our citizens must realize how their personal behaviors effect their choices and how these choices lead to consequences that effect the health of their communities.

We need to start asking ourselves?

Do I really need 3 more bedrooms?

Do I need to move out of the neighborhood because the "wrong element is moving" in. ?

You take away the supply and the demand or in this case the cancerous sprawl will diminish.

Let's understand that Memphians and Americans in many cities largely put themselves in this position when they forgot to examine how their choices affected there communities.

Acknowledge it, own it, change your behavior and move on.

Zippy the giver said...

Well, people examining their choices is a smart policy when things haven't already brought us to a point of no return, but, we're already at that point in most inner city neighborhoods and beyond the scope of that policy.
It's a shame.

Naomi Van Tol said...

Thanks for this excellent analysis of a complex issue.

Richard, you say that "projects like the Memphis Greenline will be one of the reasons that people move into Memphis," and that may be true, but that's a very minor point here. The major point is that our elected governments need to start thinking seriously about what's best for the long-term health of our community as a whole.

In the past those governments have generally chosen to do what's best for the short-term financial gain of developers and bankers while claiming their actions will pay off in the long run. Those developers and bankers have had a mighty long run, but where's that promised payoff?

We all know I-269 is a done deal. It's been in the works for years. It has been modified slightly by citizens (for example, moving the Wolf River crossing next to the existing Collierville-Arlington bridge instead of destroying a vast wetland forest two miles upstream) but in the end, citizens can only make a small difference in the final outcome.

How, exactly, can the citizens of Memphis radically alter our MPO's current course, given that most of us have jobs and families and no political clout? And more importantly, why should we be expected to do so?

Citizens pay for the salaries and benefits of our elected officials and government workers. It's entirely reasonable to think that citizens should get something in return -- like the bike lanes, greenways, and well-managed parks that so many of us want.

It's a plain fact that the Memphis Greenline would not be happening today without the work of citizen advocates and the millions supplied by the private donor who convinced Shelby County to move forward with this project.

Is this how we ought to work at building the Wolf River Greenway and the hundreds of miles of bike lanes that our city needs? Is this how we ought to work at bringing our public transit system into the 21st century? If so, it's not likely any of us will live long enough to tell that story to future generations.

Government needs to step up.

Aaron said...

Well said Naomi.

We have a strong grass-roots movement going on now , let's hope that Memphis government recognizes, partners with and empowers the movement.

A good leader at the city helm would graft those roots into his/her efforts and co-lead and the city with the community.

I second the "step-up."

antisocialist said...

SCM said: ". . . . if we don't do something about transportation policies and correct our tax policy, there's really not much reason for middle income families to stay in Memphis."

Once you fix these two things, then they'll stay for the great schools.

Zippy the giver said...

Truer sarcasm was never typed, antisocialist.

Zippy the giver said...

Here's a thought to all the "connecting Memphis to Job centers" group:
Memphis is supposed to BE the Job Center, if it's not, it has no reason to exist.

Anonymous said...

Charette! Charette!
I wanna draw a plan' on brown paper to show how bad ole suburbanites are jus' killin' my VECA neighborhood with they new roads way out east somewhere.

I propose a sit in at the next MPO meeting, where the NEW 2035 road planning process is starting!
Somebody bake some brownies!

Anonymous said...

"As we have said, if we don't do something about transportation policies and correct our tax policy, there's really not much reason for middle income families to stay in Memphis."

Well said and I couldn't agree more. We are such a middle class family. We have lived in the
U of M/Normal Station neighborhood for over 11 years, but as our children grow older with each passing year we find ourselves more and more often asking why we choose to stay where we are. And when I say choosing to stay I don't mean staying in the city as opposed to moving to Germantown, Colliervile, Olive Branch, etc., - I mean we ask ourselves why don't we leave this area entirely. We have been fortunate to travel to other cities around the country and everytime we get back home we are always struck by how far behind Memphis is in the areas of public transportation and public amenities that encourage an active lifestyle.

Support for the I-269 project by our elected officials is just one more reason for us to leave. Once again we will pay inordinately high taxes to support car-centric sprawl at the cost of our neighborhood. Just once, we would like our tax money go to improve our neighborhood. To fix the crumbling 50+ year old sidewalks, to add curb cuts so that we don't have to push our kid's strollers in the street when we go for an evening walk, to replace the worn, outdated, and broken playground equipment in Audubon Park.

In the area of public transportation, I am probably one of a handful of middle class people who actually use MATA on a daily basis and I would like to see my taxes go to vastly improve this system as well. I would go further to say that it is not just a "third world" system, but a system that some third world cities would be embarrassed to have.

When we visit cities that make it a priority to invest in walkable neighborhoods, public parks and spaces, and public transportaion systems that are efficient and that you can use to get somewhere other than downtown on a workday - we tell ourselves that we need to have our heads examined that we still live in a place like Memphis. The I-269 project is just more evidence that local officials just don't get it and that there may never be any effort to encourage folks like us to stay.

I applaud your efforts to highlight the importance of making this city attractive to the "creative class" and to families, but this project proves to me that this is not even on the radar for local officials.

Zippy the giver said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Zippy the giver said...

Maybe you've noticed the effort in America to get rid if the middle class?
When there are only rich and poor people in Memphis, things will be better. That's what disconnected brains in charge think.
Middle class people "need too much" in Memphis.
Look, this situation didn't happen overnight, it happened right under your nose and in front of your face. If you don't go down to City Hall for some "face time" (demonstrating, picketing, etc.) you get no results.
So the rich became "parasites" at some point, siphoning off the middle class' blood.
When the "parasitic rich" don't have anyone else to bleed, they'll be up a creek.
Your problem is, you have too much education and ideas as a middle class person, poor people don't, they don't argue, they just get frustrated, shoot each other and suffer.

Anonymous said...

Why we can't we adopt urban infill and revitalize neighborhoods in the city at the sametime were implementin the regional rail line that will first help Memphians who need it and then benefit tourist of downtown, the airport and surrounding areas.

Do you think if their is a rail heading downtown people will simply leave dowtown and not return or will they use it to travel to downtown and back without driving. Glenview(across the tracks from Cooper Young), Rozzelle Annesdale, Whitehaven are neighborhoods that should be revitalized. MASS TRANSIT IS THE KEY SMARTCITY MEMPHIS.

Anonymous said...

Single Source Funding for Transportation.

Zippy the giver said...

"Why can't we infill at the same time?" was that rhetorical?
I'll answer, when 75%+ of the inner city people in North Memphis and South memphis have prison tats and felony records, you can't just shove nice lil ol workers into their midst and expect them not to be perceived as "PREY". Insurance rates for inner city Memphis are double what they are for east Memphis, add that in, and don't bother to guess why.
I agree though, mass transit and rail is the key to revitalizing memphis, we need to mass transit those thugs outta here and run'em out on a rail straight to hell.

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