Wednesday, July 15, 2009
Paving The Process For Better Transportation Decisions
Sadly, we’re not surprised that stimulus money spent here on transportation is more of the same – unfocused, unstrategic and unconnected.
Earlier this year, the Memphis Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) approved projects to be funded by $28.5 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, aka stimulus plan. In a blog post a couple of weeks ago, we spotlighted the U.S. Conference of Mayors report that showed that Memphis got a grand total of 4% of the stimulus funding funneled through our state government
But even when we get money, it looks more like business as usual than a historic chance to invest the money into transformational projects. Instead, it sure looks like the traffic engineers simply pulled out their wish lists and plugged their budgets with federal money.
As a result, the list of projects in Shelby County has little rhyme or reason on the surface and appear to have no connection to target neighborhoods or strategic projects in our community.
Silos and Dots
It seems to us that Memphis and Shelby County need an Office of Connecting the Dots. Time after time, particularly in making decisions on transportation (which is defined here by the asphalt lobby rather than by public opinion), decisions are regularly made in silos so that we rarely create any momentum for change or more to the point, reverse our devastating patterns of sprawl.
For decades, decisions about school locations have been made in a vacuum by the districts and without consultation with city and county divisions so that planning is coordinated and smart. Rather than decisions about schools, roads and public facilities being made within each agency’s staff, a collaborative process and serious planning could maximize the public investments and create a convergence of purpose.
If it were left to us, we’d make our priority for stimulus money getting the roads and infrastructure right for downtown and urban neighborhoods. (The area outside Memphis has just as many projects as Memphis does.) Or, we’d make our priority taking up lanes of asphalt rather than putting down more of them and repaving them. The map of the projects and its resemblance to a patchwork quilt only reinforces the notion that there was no grand plan for the wise investment of the stimulus money for transportation.
If anything, there is continued evidence that our traffic planning is aimed more at moving freight through Memphis than in moving Memphis ahead. It’s the continuation of the mangled logic that led to approval of I-269 and to the seemingly unshakable emphasis on investing in the roads used by distribution companies instead of investing in transportation that revives our neighborhoods and connects our people to employment centers.
The People Perish
There’s little vision for transportation here except road-building, and unfortunately, despite promises from on high to the contrary, the stimulus funding has turned into a grab bag of projects for the usual suspects.
It’s a system of insiders who make the decisions and provide sham opportunities for the public to have a voice. For example, there are the mandatory public meetings for the public to express their opinion on the road projects, but it is largely for show.
The priorities are set. The deal is already done. There is no real, meaningful public input – which is absolutely amazing in this age of social media.
That’s why our idea of “complete streets” is to allow trucks and cars on the same roads. Public transit has traditionally been an afterthought and the sub-standard service provided here marginalizes the need for a 21st century system. And we are years behind in the development of bike lanes.
Bought And Paid For
We’re not sure where Memphis went wrong, except for the fact that our public processes was put up for auction and was bought by developers decades ago. Even today, in a time of greater attention to public opinion, the intertwined relationship between the public process and the special interests seems unabated.
We thought of this recently when we read this headline in the Memphis News: “Chamber Committee Whittles Priority List For Area Road Projects.” The article by Eric Smith said the Major Roads Committee of the Greater Memphis Chamber is setting road priorities for our region through an MPO committee.
We have many friends on this committee and the MPO, but here’s the thing: the business group’s interest is not necessarily the community’s interest. It is a business lobby and over the years, it has advocated ably for road projects that served its members.
That’s the way it’s supposed to work inside the Chamber. But, that same committee can’t set priorities for the community at large. It should have a major role in setting them and it should represent the Chamber’s position aggressively, but it’s not the same as representing transportation that supports entrepreneurs, innovators and healthy neighborhoods.
In the end, it’s not great roads that will draw jobs to Memphis. It’s great quality of life, a culture of creativity and a willingness to support dreamers and entrepreneurs that will attract the talented people that in turn attract jobs to our community. The blind pursuit of more lanes and more roads without the fuller context for community in time creates an incomplete plan for transportation and replicates the same mistaken policies of the past.
Recent studies have shown that although the 100 largest metro areas in the U.S. have two-thirds of the country’s population and three-quarters of its economic activity, states so far have allocated 70% of the stimulus money to rural areas.
Back to transportation planning, a major U.S. mayor made our point this week at a meeting at the White House Office of Urban Affairs, complaining that the composition of the MPO in his region was unfair to his city. As we’ve pointed out before, the Brookings report on the 50 largest MPO’s 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 bodies. 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 MPO’s were intended by the federal framers to be an essential conduit for implementing reforms and ensuring public accountability,” the report said.
The makeup of the Memphis MPO underscores the point:
• 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 other words, the mayors of Germantown, Millington and Olive Branch can outvote the mayor of Memphis and the mayor of Shelby County.
Changing The Future
There is speculation in Washington, D.C., that legislation may be advanced to address these representation problems and to beef up MPO’s to make them more effective regional planning bodies. It’s an idea that deserves serious consideration, because transportation decisions have undercut cities’ economic and social health for years.
If our MPO is any indication, there is no lack of talent on the staffs of these transportation bodies. There is only the lack of political will to give them the right questions to answer and the right problems to solve.