Sunday, July 26, 2009

Et Tu Sixty-Nine

The drumbeat of the asphalt lobby is getting louder, and as it has been so often, its persistent beat hypnotizes elected officials who should know better.

What is it anyway about otherwise logical people who suspend all logic and sense of balance when roads come into play? How do so many of these hypnotized people end up in positions where they make decisions about roads?

If you doubt our cynicism, just consider the last time you heard about a major road project voted down. Instead, people in appointed elected offices and economic development officials paid with our tax dollars, who are entrusted to make sound transportation decisions, cavalierly pave over Memphis’ future with more and more sprawl and less and less conscience about the consequences for the urban heart that keeps the regional economy beating.

Lost In The Wilderness

Somewhere, we lost our way.

We lost the perspective that all of life and the life of our city in particular is about making the right choices.

We lost the idea that the quality of life of our city is much more important than the quality of our ability to move freight through our community.

We lost our sense of priority, buying into the belief that nothing is more important than moving cars, even if it means moving Memphis into the danger zone.

We lost our ability to be consistent. The same people who are now putting a pretty face on I-269 through north Mississippi – which the state sees as a heavy competitive advantage - are the same people who told us last year that we had to give away more tax freezes to compete with the Mississippi.

No Room For Mistakes

Here’s why this matters so much. Memphis has no margin for error.

If we are to succeed and change our trajectory, we have to do an awful lots of things right. Decisions on highways and transportation here are not only not right; they are disastrously wrong.

How is it that there is such a clear, consensus opinion that we have paid a devastating price for highway decisions that fueled sprawl and hollowed out Memphis, and despite that, in an act of cognitive dissonance, we unbelievably continue on blithely with the same misguided attitudes toward road-building.

This assault on reason continues to most dramatically play out in the advocacy of I-269.

It’s a case study of the way that political insiders and development interests are able to win even when they appear to have lost. I-269 was apparently blocked when Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, Shelby County Mayor Jim Rout, the county delegation of the Tennessee Legislature and Center City Commission opposed the inexplicable I-269 interstate loop that sweeps through North Mississippi and swings along the easternmost edge of Shelby County.

Facts Of Life

The mayors’ opposition was persuasive and unshakable. At least in the beginning.

But developers are different than regular people. Once a decision seems to be decided, the public moves on. Developers move in and game the system through operatives and apologists who back door the system, looking for soft spots in the decision-making process and painting elected officials into corners, where exhausted and politically hemmed in, they almost uniformly give in.

That’s what happened with Mayor Herenton and Mayor Rout with I-269. Although they thought they had made the final decision to put a nail into the coffin of the project, developers and the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce simply went under the radar, joining hands with Mississippi officials who were determined to use the interstate through Northern DeSoto to open up the green fields for developers.

With few options but surrender, the mayors eventually acquiesced, angry and frustrated.

It’s a seminal fact of life about the system. There is always the force that comes from those driven by their financial benefit – developers and highway builders and from those driven by their political benefits. That both groups can be so single-minded in their self-interest to the detriment of the overall health of Memphis is something best left for psychologists to study, but it is odd how often short-term financial and political interests trump long-term sound public policy.

One Trick Pony

It’s the sort of mentality that blandly accepts as reasonable that our roads and highways should be built as if it is always 8 a.m. or 5 p.m. It’s the sort of philosophy that answers every question about better transportation with more roads. God knows that there is always an engineering study to justify more and more roads.

MATA offers third-world public transit. So what do we do? Build more highways.

Neighborhoods are begging for bike lanes. So what do we do? Build more highways.

Yes, people want “complete streets” that offer transportation alternatives. So what do we do? Build more highways.

It was utterly unbelievable a decade ago, but it’s just unconscionable now. Despite dire warnings of gridlock that act as if we the need to give people a way to drive from Nashville to Jackson, Mississippi, without even seeing Memphis from the interstate, there’s really no crisis.

Need For A Detour

In a comparison with 35 large metros (see the list at the end of this post), including all of our peer cities, federal government data show that Memphis is #27 in the annual cost of delay per peak traveler, #25 in travel time index, #28 in commute time and #22 in change in travel time index. Meanwhile, we have the same freeway lanes per square mile as Boston and more than Chicago and Philadelphia.

The U.S. Public Interest Research Group said that Memphis is 6th in the number of lanes of highways per capita, and our community was cited by the Federal Highway Administration for lack of safe alternative forms of transportation.

It hardly sounds like the makings of catastrophe. Funny, we’re fourth from the bottom in transit capacity, but you don’t hear any of the usual suspects calling for a 21st century transit system.

That’s the thing about transportation planning. There’s little consideration for what the public really wants and even less consideration about what makes successful Memphis neighborhoods and the damage that is done by the present transportation policies.

Tomorrow: Et Tu Sixty-Nine, Part 2

* Cities in study: Los Angeles, San Diego, Baltimore, San Francisco, San Antonio, St. Louis, Charlotte, Kansas City, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Columbux, Salt Lake City, Washington D.C., Denver, Louisville, New York, Seattle, Miami, Milwaukee, Oklahoma City, Portland, Cincinnati, Dallas, Detroit, Houston, Minneapolis, Nashville, Phoenix, Boston, Memphis, Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Austin and Atlanta


Steve Steffens said...

Allow me to play devil's advocate for a moment.

You are, as always, on target about the horror that is MATA. We have third-world public transportation indeed.

However, I suspect if we didn't build out i-269. the state of Mississippi would offer to build it out for us.

I say that it's inevitable, so let's take it it to the logical conclusion, and COMPLETE the Loop by taking it west into Arkansas and back around to Mississippi, and getting TWO new bridges over the river for the price of one-half of a bridge..

The state of TN could split the costs of a northern bridge with Arkansas, and Arkansas could split the costs of the southern bridge with Mississippi. Thgis would also have the desired effect of routing truck traffic AROUND the city, reducing clogged traffic on 240 and 40.

The OLD bridge was built in 1948, and the "new" bridge was finished 36 years afo, so they are in need of replacing, and two new bridges will reduce the wear and tear on them.

Unfortunately, this entire CiTY is laid out like a collection of suburbs once one gets beyond the Parkways, and it is going to be difficult to reverse that trend, so why not reduce the unnecessary truck traffic in the city, and make Arkansas and Mississippi pair their fair share of the costs?

Anonymous said...

the new loop is a done deal.
wanna contol development out to it?

prohibit new collector roads, commercial zoning and new sewer extensions, or new sewer treatment plants by the suburban governments.

then end world hunger, while your'e at it. that'll show em.

Brad said...

Great article(as usual)! Looking forward to the second installment.

@Steve: Your advocation for the devil assumes more business as usual. This blog exists to provide substance that not only it is not "Smart" to continue as usual, but our society cannot sustain itself on its current path. Where is the money for this? At a time when state budgets are stretched thin, the premise that 2 bridges should be built for the price (to Tennessee) of half of one is similar to the premise that supports so many of the suburban mall retailers: jack the prices up, then put everything on sale to drive sales to people who didn't need the product in the first place.
We should not subsidize continued sprawl, and that is what I-269 does, even if only indirectly. If the current interstate system cannot sustain the illustrious 30 minute commute, then that should drive more development into the city, not out of it!

Zippy the giver said...

Throwing good money after bad, again.

Smart City Consulting said...


I-269 can't be built out by Mississippi because it has to connect to the Tennessee portion. Let MS do whatever it likes - it can be the highway equivalent of an oxbow lake.

We don't accept it as inevitable. All we have to do is to insist that transportation planners actually listen to public opinion and have a meaningful public input process.

The third bridge seems to be in the cards for us, but if we aren't careful, it will end up in Mississippi, more about casinos than about cities.

As the statistics show, there's no massive amount of truck traffic in our county, but you'd never know it from listening to the traffic engineers.

If we are to build I-269, we should at least get something in return - a first-class public transit system, impact fees, etc. It's not too late for our elected officials to lobby the governor to stop treating Memphis as if it's expendable.

Anonymous said...

While the Chamber of Commerce is treating the Fayette County rail yard like it's the second coming, the only good part of it is that it will stall out the eastward spread of sprawl in its tracks (sorry about the pun).

Aaron said...

If there is an effective way to stop this, I am all for helping out.

But the fact that they railed it through despite public support suggests there is little we can do.

Smart City Consulting said...


We'd say here that what it takes is for the rest of us to get as organized as the proponents are and be really serious about sticking with it.

Anonymous said...

Smartcity, the only way to fix this issue of sprawl is to connect the region to Memphis. Run a light rail from dowtown to Crittenton County into West Memphis to spurn growth in the west.. A southern corridor that connects Desoto to Memphis, and an Eastern corridor that runs the Southern Northfolk line to Collierville.

That is in edition to the northern leg that would run through Millington towards Tipton county, an the Memphis Internationl Airport and downtown leg that serves the tourism and medical districts. Regionalism is the key and what better way to bring people into to Memphis than commuter rails and light rail. The train tracks are already in place.

Dedicate single source funding from tax throughout the region to support. Bring in the surrounding metro area mayors and transportation experts and get the ball rolling. A regional rail program would help double the Memphis Metro area and help make Memphis a more attractive place to live work and play in Memphis.

Brad said...

Your line of thinking is similar to what led to development of I-240 and what the proponents of 269 say will help connect the region. The problem of course is that we should be spending tax dollars on incentivizing ways to save money and resources, not subsidizing suburbanites' commute. I heartily believe that every person should have the right to live as far away from the city as one wants, but the costs should be plainly known.
Your commute is partly subsidized by the government that builds and maintains the infrastructure, the environment that bears the burdens of cheap oil, and your kids and grand-kids to fix the problems that we are shortsightedly creating.
We need to attract people and businesses into the urban core, not make it easier to live further away from it! How to do this is, of course, why we all tune in to this blog!

Zippy the giver said...

We need to build our way into the techno corridor that got routed around us, we need to get rid of FedEx and get UPS in it's place, we need a mayor that will remove the ability of special interests to sway government unduly, even our governor will listen to common sense when presented to him. I've sent him correspondence with suggestions and ALL of them have been accomplished. There can be much more accomplished, cultivating an environment where sustainable communities naturally evolve and sustainable energy powers them, sustainable growth if we develop it, sustainable future if we get into gear.
Do we need an I-269? I think the 69 tells the story in that equation. It seems so un-needed that it must be a political quid pro quo.

Zippy the giver said...

Just a thought, but, do you think this may be a plan to move the inner city people to the very outer edge, bulldoze or renovate the inner city, then sell it to the people who moved out to get away from the crime?
Then the people who live out near the 269 loop can all go (blank) each other, maybe?

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