Mass-transit systems make sense in densely populated cities such as New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Paris. They don't make sense in sprawling mid-sized cities such as Memphis.
The new trolley link between downtown and what may some day actually be a revived "medical center" is a questionable expense of public funds. It is justified by the generosity of the federal government, which used to pay 80 percent of the cost of mass-transit projects. Or in the case of Memphis, federal funds diverted from the aborted Interstate 40 project through Overton Park were used to help build the first stage of the downtown trolley system.
At any rate, the new trolley link is completed, and the only thing to do now is try to get some passenger use and business leverage out of it. We hope it works, but we can't help noticing that it stops well short of Overton Square, Zinnie's, Anderton's, Molly's, Huey's, and the Barbecue Shop and that a big chunk of the Medical Center no longer exists downtown.
But the proposed new light-rail line from downtown to the airport is another matter. Supposedly, it would cost $400 million, but any estimate about a public construction project targeted for completion in 2010 is a guess, at best. What we do know is that under new rules the federal government would pay at most $200 million, or half of the cost. State and local governments would pay the rest, plus operating subsidies.
We cannot imagine a state government that often looks askance at Memphis anyway rallying behind a $100 million appropriation. And we cannot imagine city and county governments that recently declined to spend $5 million over several years on the hometown University of Memphis rallying behind a $100 million investment in light rail.
The proposal almost seems like a waste of breath, but public officials trotted it out again this week so it must be dealt with. In addition to the cost, it has practical problems. The proposed route down Pauline and Lamar is several miles west of the population center of Memphis and Shelby County. In other words, some residents might have to drive 15 miles to take a train 12 miles to the airport. And if the chosen route is Pauline and Lamar, then the expensive Madison-line link over Interstate 240 to Cleveland was unnecessary.
With gas at $1.75 a gallon, the importance of economical travel shouldn't be diminished. But there are options that make more sense than light rail.
One is car-pooling and high-occupancy-vehicle lanes. Another is bike lanes. Another is fuel-efficient cars. And the most promising of all is the express bus, like the charters and express buses that take people to The Pyramid now. One of the selling points of Memphis is that downtown is only 15 minutes or less from the airport. Many Memphians might gladly pay $7 for an express bus from downtown or various collection points in East Memphis to the airport. Airport-area employees might also welcome expanded bus service. Some major cities give buses their own transit lane at peak hours, enhancing speed and reliability. Needless to say, a bus is versatile, mobile, and inexpensive compared to a light-rail train.
Even cities that have mass transit are taking another look at buses. The Washington Post reported last year that "buses hold the greatest potential to improve mass transit with fewer dollars because bus systems are less expensive than rail projects. Modest investments go farther."
The determination of some Memphis politicians and MATA bureaucrats to push ahead with a light-rail train to the airport looks suspiciously like big construction for its own sake. That's not good public policy.