THE NEXT BIG THING Big-league cities have major-league teams, expen\sive new stadiums, and rail-based mass-transit systems. Two down, one to go, Memphis. Or so say proponents of a $400 million light-rail line between downtown and Memphis International Airport. With the arena controversy reduced to rear-guard actions now that construction of the facility is well under way, the airport train shapes up as the next big public debate in 2003. Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA) officials gave members of the media a peek and a pitch earlier this month, and an environmental-impact statement on two alternative routes is expected to be released for public comment early next year. The question most likely to be asked is Why? The proposed rail link would fix a problem that does not yet exist, at least not on the order of the daily traffic jams at I-40 and I-240 or Walnut Grove and Humphreys Boulevard. The trip from downtown to the airport takes 12 to 20 minutes by car or taxi and 45 minutes by MATAs hourly DASH van, which costs $15 and stops at nine downtown hotels. The downtown-airport link would be a slightly different animal from the Main Street Trolley. It would connect to the Medical Center extension now under con struc tion and run on similar tracks. But the cars would be bigger and travel at about the speed of au to mo biles. One pro posed route goes through or past Overton Square, Coo per-Young, the Fair grounds, and Air ways Boulevard. The other turns south at Pauline and fol lows Lamar to Air ways. Tom Fox, director of planning and capital projects for MATA, said getting people to the airport is only one benefit of the link. It will also connect downtown to neighborhoods and businesses in Midtown and along Airways and Lamar, reduce pollution, and possibly spur new development along the right of way. The proposed airport corridor comes with a high price-- $400 million over several years-- equal to the combined cost of the new NBA arena and all of MATAs other rail projects of the past decade put together. And it would require a much larger percentage of city funding than previous projects. Urban mass-transit projects used to be funded 80 per cent by the federal government. That share has recently changed to 50 percent on capital costs. The city of Memphis and the financially strapped state of Tennessee, in other words, could be on the hook for $200 million plus operating subsidies if, like the trolley, the light-rail train is a lightly used train. Farebox revenue covers only 20 to 25 per cent of MATAs current cost of operations, which Fox said is typical for urban systems. There is another hidden cost. For the last two decades, Memphis has had a unique source of funding for transportation projects: the $273 million that it would have cost to complete I-40 through the center of the city and Overton Park. When that project was abandoned, Memphis got to keep the so-called inter state substitution funds and use them for, among other things, the Main Street Trolley and Nonconnah Parkway. Fox noted that visiting transit officials are often impressed and even envious of the Main Street line and the Riverfront Loop. Then he tells them the financing story and the tale of I-40 and Overton Park. That golden goose has stopped laying eggs. Interstate substitution funds would not be available for the down town-airport link. Cost is likely to be the main concern about the project but not the only one. Construction of the Medical Center link along Madison has caused significant disruption to businesses and car traffic, and at a recent neighborhood meeting with Cooper-Young residents Fox acknowledged that sentiment ran against the Midtown alternative. Nor is it clear exactly who is driving the proposal. Airport Authority president Larry Cox said the airport, including FedEx, is one of the largest employment centers in the state of Tennessee, and it makes sense to have public transportation to the extent that it is frequent, reliable, and cost-effective. International travelers in particular, he noted, frequently ask where is the train? when they deplane. Its going to be a hotly debated issue as to whether its going to happen or not, said Cox, a member of the Regional Rail Steering Committee. A spokesman for FedEx said the issue is so far below the radar he was unable to find anyone there to comment on it. Jeff Sanford, chief executive of the Center City Commission, suggested the push is coming from MATA. If the decision is made to go forward with light rail, then downtown is a logical terminus for the system, Sanford said. Since 1993, MATA has completed four major downtown projects: the $34.9 million Main Street Trolley, the $9.4 million Riverfront Loop, the $23.3 million renovation of Central Station, and the $6.7 million North End Terminal. The Medical Center line will cost $74.6 million. The least expensive of these, the North End Terminal, is heavily used by bus passengers making transfers and by patrons of the daycare center in the building. In contrast, the Central Station renovation is essentially an apartment building with a nice train lobby and a huge parking lot in back where MATA buses make a pointless lap around the empty outdoor waiting area before going on their way. City council members and their constituents might want to take a close look at both of them before spending $400 million on a train to the airport.