Some weeks, newspaper articles make for an interesting point-counterpoint.

That’s certainly the case this week. One day, the city attorney says that a loss of $6.3 million in federal funding for air quality improvements has “very little, if any, impact in a meaningful way on any of the citizens.”

The next day, Memphis City Council members are complaining because they are faced with the budget request for a new inspection station to test the emissions of Memphians’ cars. With apologies to the city attorney, that sure feels like a meaningful impact to us.

The federal funding is of course being forfeited because the garage built at the FedExForum isn’t the “intermodal transfer facility” that the plans submitted to Tennessee Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration called for. Since state government gave money with no strings attached to Nashville for a stadium and an arena, the current controversy about the garage begs the question of why TDOT tried to thread the intermodal transfer needle in the first place.

The Same For Memphis?

Clearly, the motivation of the Sundquist Administration was to keep from putting state money into the FedExForum despite the governor’s assurance that the state would “do the same for Memphis that it did for Nashville.” The fact that the state didn’t fully live up to this promise, or federal regulations, with its $20 million in funding (included in the $250 million arena budget) is the basis for the problem that has now resulted in a call by some Council members for a federal investigation.

The cynical among us await the day when TDOT fires some functionary in its offices for failing to follow the funding regulations, when in truth, the ultimate decisions were political ones being made in the governor’s office which was busily robbing Peter to pay Paul to fulfill its pledge of support for the new Memphis arena.

All of this was an interesting sideshow until City Council was faced with a $4.8 million capital funding request for a new inspection station. Suddenly, the $6.3 million in air quality funds being withheld as a result of the garage problem loomed awfully large.

Council members were told that the new station is needed to take the load off the existing three stations where only Memphians are required to take their cars to be tested for safety and emissions.


City Council was justified in its simmering irritation over the fact that Memphians are required to get their cars tested while the 263,067 living in Shelby County outside of Memphis are immune from the testing, not to mention the 88,000 people who drive into this county to work.

These 351,067 lucky souls never have to sit in line at an emissions inspection station, while 645,978 Memphians are tested like they are carrying TB. If you’re looking for a local definition for unfairness, look under emissions testing.

Councilman Tom Marshall calls the emissions testing a “disincentive to live in Memphis,” and Councilman Rickey Peete suggested something akin to a guest worker program that would require people working in Memphis to get their cars tested, too.

Perhaps, they should check existing ordinances because there may be a law on the books left over from the 1930s that requires nonresidents of Memphis to get their cars tested if they drive inside the city. A few years ago, Councilman E.C. Jones said the law was still on the books. It seems like a good time to check.

I can remember as a young child living in Collierville in the 1950s and 1960s that our only trips to downtown (my father thought a trip to Crosstown to the movies was a major expedition) were to go to the inspection station for safety checks. My murky memory tells me that my father said we had to do it if we wanted to drive that car in Memphis. Otherwise, we risked getting ticketed. So of course he did it. My memory is less clear why we suddenly stopped, just like every one else living in Shelby County outside Memphis.

EPA Ruling

That situation continued despite the fact that the EPA ruled that Memphis was in nonattainment of carbon monoxide targets about 20 years ago. At that time, emissions testing was added to the safety checks at the inspection station. In the interest of pure air, you would think that every one could band together and have their cars tested. But like so many issues, the region quickly becomes balkanized on emissions testing with the towns outside of Memphis acting as if it is the first step toward consolidation and One World government.

Meanwhile, Memphis struggles alone and mightily to keep its air pollution in check. As City Public Works Director Jerry Collins put it so accurately in The Commercial Appeal:

“Everything that the city does to improve air pollution helps them keep from having their cars inspected.”

It would seem logical that because air quality is a critical regional issue that our Metropolitan Planning Organization – the agency that deals with these kinds of regional transportation issues and doles out federal money as the carrot to get them addressed – would be a natural ally of the City Council.

But that is not the case. For 15 years, the Memphis MPO has been home to some of the most parochial thinking in the community, and that certainly applies to air quality. The Memphis MPO is Memphis in name only, because it is the suburban and rural interests that dictate its policies.

MPO Neglect

For example, a recent committee, with great gravity, took up the issue of how the region could improve its air quality. It met frequently, and it looked for all kinds of answers, but in the end, conspicuously absent from its list of possible remedies was regional emissions testing.

This lack of attention to the obvious is the clearest demonstration of the stranglehold that the small towns have over policies that place Memphis at a striking economic disadvantage. All of this reminds us of the Brookings Institution report last year that questioned the basic fairness of MPOs across the U.S., but gave particularly damning grades to the Memphis MPO.

The report on the 50 largest MPOs concluded that Memphis had the third most unbalanced board in the U.S. While city residents made up 63 percent of the total population in the MPO’s district, Memphis had only 16 percent of MPO members. Meanwhile, the report said that the suburbs, with 32 percent of the population, control 79 percent of the vote.

According to Brookings, although the Memphis region has a large proportion of African-Americans, 84 per cent of its 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 MPOs were intended by the federal framers to be an essential conduit for implementing reforms and ensuring public accountability,” the report said.

Suburban Imbalance

Because of this suburban imbalance, the idea of emissions testing for Shelby County, much less the region, is never seriously considered. No one wants to upset the politically powerful suburban interests, and as a result, the citizens of Memphis now face the prospect of paying for its fourth inspection station.

The imbalance is also the reason that the recent recommendations of the MPO committee didn’t include high-speed rail. Some of the officials from the ‘burbs have even expressed concern that it makes it easier for the wrong kind of people to come to their cities. Apparently, the wrong kinds are people from Memphis with their nonpolluting cars.

It’s another one of those strange cases of the tail wagging the dog, a syndrome that is so prevalent here in regional governance and public policy issues. The MPO forfeits its role as the seedbed for regional problem-solving because of suburban political influence, and meanwhile, the Memphis and Shelby County Health Department continues to stay on the fence on countywide emissions testing.

Over the years, health department decisions on emissions testing have been made by politicians, not by the air quality technicians, dating back to the time 10 years ago when the health division director was poised to order countywide emissions testing based on his scientific opinion of what had to be done to control air pollution. He received a directive from the county mayor: no testing, it would make the small town mayors mad.

Regional Solution

So, here we are, more than two decades after the problem was first identified, still looking for a common sense, regional solution to a problem that should concern all of us, and not just be the problem of the people who live in Memphis.

If the federal government really wants to see how its funds are wasted, it shouldn’t look at the garage at the Forum. It should look at the federal money spent for more and more road projects by the MPO while pretending that such things as vanpooling and carpooling are meaningful ways to reduce carbon dioxide.

The City Council is right. The time for countywide emissions testing is here.

It’s way past time to reform the structure of the MPO.