County elected officials talk about the evils of sprawl, the OPD staff keeps working on planning reports and the taxpayers keep grumbling, but reading headlines ballyhooing the coming completion of Tennessee Highway 385, it’s easy to feel that the war against sprawl is over.

We lost.

The opening of the 54-mile suburban loop (if your version of suburbs includes the southwestern fringe of Fayette County) will be $450 million of fuel that will power sprawl ever eastward, increasing county government’s suffocating debt along the way. Just as its gravitational pull will extend development, it will also erode the core city and increase the pricetag that the public pays for government services.

The existence of 385 speaks to the curious nature of government and its love affair with asphalt. There’s always a seeming urgency to satisfy the needs of the development industry and to enable the flight of citizens away from areas where public investments are already paid for.

There’s almost a blind obedience to the car. Somewhere along the way, because of the power campaign contributors and road builders wield, an overriding purpose of government morphed into making people mobile at the expense of neighborhood, the urban core and the public pocketbook.

Why was Highway 385 needed? It’s hard to say with precision, because its genesis lay in the Tennessee Department of Transportation where the building industry has long driven the agenda. (Fortunately, Governor Philip Bredesen has made major progress in changing the culture of TDOT with a non-road builder as commissioner.)

For 385, there was the obligatory traffic study which inevitably shows that the growth of development demands this new road looping way out east and then up to Arlington and around to Millington. Of course, the problem is that there is no counter-balancing study on the impact on the core city or the neighborhoods that are being hollowed out. There is no fiscal note that tells the cost of abandoning existing infrastructure or the social costs of declining neighborhoods and the problems incubated there.

It’s always curious to read the blistering letters to the editor from people living in Collierville or Arlington who are complaining about the public money spent on downtown Memphis. And yet, that public investment downtown is dwarfed by the public money spent on highways to get people to move in the other direction.

In particular, Shelby County Government’s engineering department treats every project like it’s building I-40. That’s why you end up with gaudy arteries that make no sense — seven lanes for Shelby Drive or Holmes Road. Like 385, the lanes and lanes of highways are gifts to development, and since the poor are not campaign contributors, their voices are lost and their interests too easily forgotten.

Then, too, after these gargantuan roads are built to handle the shifting traffic loads, there’s never any plan to go back to the roads that no longer handle the loads for which they were built and size them down for their current uses and to make them less unsightly.

As for 385, already, the daily traffic count is 238,710 vehicles. In the future, with much of Highway 385 serving as I-269 – the circumferential interstate for I-69 – that number will only skyrocket. For years, city and county governments advocated strongly for an I-69 route that followed the interstate through the heart of Memphis, but like water dripping on a stone, slowly but surely, development interests had the eastern I-269 route added, primarily as justification for it extending through DeSoto County and certain real estate interests.

This future combination of Highway 385/I-269 can be lethal unless Memphis and Shelby County turn their attention now to preventing more unbridled sprawl. There’s not much time. By 2008, the highway should be finished and open for traffic from I-240 near Mt. Moriah all the way to U.S. Highway 51 in Millington.

In a recent article in The Commercial Appeal, an Arlington landowner hailed the coming highway: “As every piece comes together, pretty soon, you will have something with 385 like the loop around Atlanta…Now you go up there (the Atlanta beltway), and there are hotels everywhere and apartments and office complexes by the thousands. It’s just another layer of city out there.”

Of course, that’s the problem. Unlike Memphis, the layer of city in Shelby County is not the result of population growth, but mere population movement, and as we’ve seen, the cost of that to the public sector is financially unsustainable. And even with the population growth in Atlanta, the negative consequences of the beltways there have been documented, particularly its role in shifting the majority of jobs to outside of the beltway and leaving the city center to cope with a variety of serious social ills.

Which brings us to a cogent comment by Tennessee Department of Transportation Commissioner Gerald Nicely, who recently proposed that the state should build toll roads. He suggested that the “Orange Route” beltway around Knoxville would be a good candidate.

So would Highway 385. Right now, with a $1 toll, it would generate $87 million a year, and if the commissioner really wants a formula for fairness, he would split it with Shelby County Government – which foots most of the bill for sprawl – and Memphis City Government – which is left to contend with the problems of neighborhood decline.