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.

Misplaced Priorities

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.

Who’s Who

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.


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

We need the federal government to step in and rout this corruption from our midst.
How do we make that happen?
Call the US Atty's office?
Contact the President?
I can make those things happen.
A vacancy in all planning seats needs to be created and filled with people who have no interest in satisfying developer's wallets, or, their own beyond their salaries.

I love it, we need a "Connect The Dots Commission" it's so true. Every facet of this place is disjointed. Muttled communication makes great fuel for corruption. Communication here is so screwed up that Memphis looks like a federally subsidized farm for corruption.

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Wain Gaskins said...

There are several things that need to be addressed with this article. However, I will only address the use fo the "stimulus" funds in this response. A check of the facts would have been helpful with regard to the use of the stimulus funds before printing the article. First, did you know the funds have to be obligated by September 30, 2009 for "shovel ready" projects. The definition of a "shovel ready" project is one that meets ALL federal requirements and guidelines including, but not limited to, environmental clearances, procedures for right-of-way acquisitions, construction plans format, etc. That is why a significant portion of the stimulus funds were given to state DOTs.

For those not familiar with the process, these are very time consuming efforts that can't be done within the time frames mandated for the "stimulus" funding unless the project was already being designed with the expectation of using federal funding for a project. The MPO selected "groups" of projects where the local agencies could meet the federal requirements within the time frame alloted. These types of projects included street paving, constructing curb ramps, signing and marking upgrades, some bridge safety projects, etc. These are the types of projects we could, with the assistance of TDOT, get the proper environmental clearances for withing the time frames alloted. The local agencies also had to get personnel certified to manage the projects per federal guidelines.

It was a matter of provide projects that could be obligated within the time frame alloted or the money would go to another MPO or another state.

As for the City of Memphis, we serve over 346 square miles and all the citizens within those boundaries deserve services for their tax dollars

The opening sentence of the article states, "Sadly, we’re not surprised that stimulus money spent here on transportation is more of the same – unfocused, unstrategic and unconnected." The effort to obligate the available stimulus was very focused on projects eligible for the funds within the time constraints. The effort was very strategic in the development of projects where there was a need for funding that would otherwise be unmet or very limited. The projects were connected in that the vast amount of funds had to be spent on facilites contained in the established major road network.

the MPO and the City of Memphis are following the same rules for the use of "Stimulus" funds that every other jurisdiction in the country has to follow. Basically, find projects that meet or can be made to meet the federal requirements in a very short period of time.

Smart City Consulting said...

Thanks, Wain, for the comment.

Our concern is that our community doesn't seem to have any sort of coordinated, comprehensive transportation process (see Et Tu Sixth Nine posts) and as a result, these kinds of projects seem to have no strategic impact.

How do we integrate transportation projects into an overall master plan for creating the kind of city we all want?

Wain Gaskins said...

Throwing rocks at everyone is not an appropriate planning process. The MPO developed a Long Range Transportation Plan and a Major Road Plan. Public meetings were held throughout the region to obtain comments on the plan. Some meetings had good attendance, most didn't. The MPO, along with the City, is very concerned with public involvement, but most people are not prone to provide input on the front end and wait to object to whatever is approved.

The same with I-69/269. I personally attended several of the meetings concerning the route. Most of the objections that were expressed were by adjacent land owners directly impacted by the route(s).

The Unified Development Code (UCD) is something that has been under development for several years that has recently been accepted by the Land Use Control Board and will soon go to the county commission and city council. Numerous meetings have been held on this document to obtain public input.

Anonymous said...

It is absurd to even suggest with a straight face that there is any public process in transportation that means anything. The fix is always in. There's no attempt to get the public involved and the transportation "planners" and engineers use Sondheim and Wolff as whipping boys in an effort to make the case that the public's too stupid or strident to have anything to offer.

There is no serious transportation planning going on in Memphis and Shelby County and certainly none that isn't done in a silo.

I know. I've been in the midst of it.

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