Transportation master planning is the process by which Memphis delays the onset of projects it badly needs while advancing projects it doesn't need at all.
At least that's the way it seems sometimes. While drivers stuck in traffic jams await a new or expanded road through Shelby Farms, planning is moving along on a light rail line from downtown to the airport that could cost $400 million.
Memphis is nationally famous for the road it didn't build, Interstate 40 through Overton Park and Midtown. Some of the ramps and bridges currently being knocked down for the Midtown-Interstate 40 widening were built 35 years ago and never carried a single car.
More recently, roads helped put Shelby County in a financial bind because of their cost and because of the growth they encouraged in places like Cordova, Collierville, and Hickory Hill. So it's worth keeping tabs on roads and the people who influence them, like the Memphis Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO).
In the big picture, Memphis is not doing badly, trafficwise.
"Our road system isn't that congested yet," MPO coordinator Carter Gray told board members this month. There is still a lot of "free flow," and measures to alleviate traffic, like high-occupancy vehicle lanes, are lightly used. The trend is more people making longer commutes, and often doing it alone. But planners are looking 20 years down the road.
The creation of light-rail corridors is moving along, step by bureaucratic step, with every meeting of the MPO, defying the popular notion that government at every level is going broke. By 2026, the MPO and the Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA) envision a system that would spread from downtown to the airport, southeastern Shelby County, and well into DeSoto County.
"The basic premise of our plan," says an MPO planning document, "is increased investment in transit to fund a new light-rail network to increase urban density along these corridors and in so doing prevent sprawl."
The total cost of such a light-rail system would be well over $1 billion. Yet the combined population of Shelby County is projected to increase by a modest 22 percent by 2026, from 897,000 to 1.1 million. The federal government typically pays half of a project's capital costs, with state and local governments paying the rest.
How can this be? Because the Memphis Area Transit Authority estimates that it will receive $800 million in dedicated funding over the next 20 years.
Meanwhile, getting a road built through Shelby Farms is still one tough nut. There may be no other area of government in which a handful of dedicated activists can have such influence over public policy. The Friends of Shelby Farms Ñ often represented at public meetings by Art Wolf, his wife and former city school board member Bert Wolf, and Laura Adams (Art Wolf's daughter) Ñ has had a substantial impact on various plans to increase traffic through Shelby Farms.
They know the rules. At a board meeting of the MPO this month, speakers were limited to three minutes each in an effort to move things along. Art Wolf and another member of his group promptly donated their time to Bert Wolf, lest anyone cut her off.
Developers, on the other hand, are sometimes just another voice. Boyle Investment and its executive vice president Rusty Bloodworth are a prime example.
"It is critical to all of our tenants and residents in our developments, as well as the economic health of Shelby County, to have as many linkages into and through Shelby Farms with at least the number of lanes indicated in the current draft," Bloodworth told road planners earlier this month.
That has been his stance for roughly 30 years. During that time, Boyle has built such developments as Century Center, Humphreys Center, and Regalia. But no new roads have been built through Shelby Farms.
The latest approach to widening Walnut Grove in and around Shelby Farms is to take it in segments, with the section between Interstate 240 and the Wolf River getting first attention. But the Friends of Shelby Farms are wise to the fact that whatever is done there will affect what is done in the park. Traffic will continue to pile up in front of Baptist Memorial Hospital for quite a while.