The Metropolitan Planning Organization, commonly known as the MPO, appears to be at the center of two federal reviews – one about the FedExForum garage and another about Homeland Security.

Being asked in both cases is whether regulations governing the use and oversight of federal funds were complied with.

First, FedExForum.

Last week, the city attorney released 800 pages of documents positioned as the seminal emails, letters and reports about the controversial garage project, whose misuse of federal funds has already led to a $6.5 million penalty for the City of Memphis, which accepted the $20 million garage construction grant for both Memphis and Shelby County Governments.

Missing Links

Curiously, missing from the list are letters written by Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton and former Shelby County Mayor Jim Rout who were actively involved in lobbying and reaching a political understanding with then-governor Don Sundquist on state funding for Memphis’ new arena.

Not included on the cd of documents is a letter written by Mayor Herenton to then-Commissioner of Transportation Bruce Saltsman in spring, 2002, describing the garage project and how it would meet federal regulations for an intermodal transfer facility.

Commissioner Saltsman, at the direction of governor, had been told to “make the project happen,” and he instructed his staff to work with representatives of city and county governments and the Public Building Authority to design the garage to meet the regulations.

That’s where the MPO was involved, although its pivotal role is only hinted at in the recently released documents.

MPO Amendment

There could be no federal funds for the FedExForum garage unless the MPO signed off on them in its role as the regional agency that sets priorities and approves the use of all federal transportation-related funds as part of its Transportation Improvement Program.

That’s why Rout, who also was chairman of the MPO in 2002, called a special meeting of the group. The only purpose was to amend the organization’s existing three-year transportation plan (developed and approved 10 ½ months before) so that $25 million – $20 million in federal funds plus $5 million in local matching funds – could be spent to “reconstruct Linden Avenue, construct and parking and an intermodal transfer facility near the intersection of Third and Linden.”

The resolution by the MPO executive board approving the project was signed by Rout on July 11, 2002. Because the $25 million in funding was coming from federal funds earmarked for projects decreasing traffic congestion, lowering auto emissions and increasing the use of mass transit, the MPO took the money from existing programs, which were moved down in priority to free up the money for the garage. The changes in priorities seem even more relevant in light of recent air quality problems in Memphis.

If Governor Sundquist had fulfilled his pledge to “do for Memphis what we (state government) did for Nashville,” there would have been no intermodal facility problem, but once he said that state government would take the money from federal funds, he set in motion a process whose goal was to make sure the arena garage was designed to meet federal regulations.


This required careful coordination between TDOT and the MPO, and subsequently, a letter by Rout confirmed the agreement. Ironically, attached to the letter were the penalties (fine and prison) for not following the federal rules.

The index released by the city attorney prominently mention the name of PBA Executive Director David Bennett, who was hired to work on the Forum after serving as project manager for The Pickering Firm during construction of The Pyramid and later as Shelby County engineer.

Mr. Bennett did not suffer fools lightly and was notorious for stating his unvarnished professional opinion in a political environment that normally despises such candor. As the person in charge of The Pyramid construction, he was legend for keeping meticulous notes, the key factor in local governments never losing a lawsuit filed against it while winning every lawsuit they filed against contractors.

Back in December, 2002, Mr. Bennett said he was concerned the arena garage. Like every one involved in the project, he was frustrated by the state’s decision to take its $20 million for the project from federal funds with plenty of strings attached.

But more to the point, he said the garage was turning into a mess, because the staff of the PBA and local government was being asked to comply with regulations that were problematic. Most of all, the garage being designed to meet the federal regulations wasn’t the garage promised to the Memphis Grizzlies, he said, adding that it would be trouble before the project was over.

Mr. Bennett died in 2004, so he’ll never know how right he was.

Homeland Security

The other MPO-related program attracting the attention of federal officials is Homeland Security.

Put simply, the six-county District 11 Homeland Security office is in disarray. Despite press releases about cameras and exercises, the office seems to lack any real program of work, no real training programs and no real sense of purpose.

Things seemed on the right track when former Memphis Police Director James Bolden was named executive director of the office, but unlike some communities where Homeland Security reports directly to the top levels of government, here, it was placed three layers down, answering to the county government’s director of public works.

After a short time on the job, Mr. Bolden called it quits, complaining about interference from public works officials into the operations of his office, and following his resignation, the confusion amplified, as the MPO – with no authority over homeland security – began to manage the agency.


Some websites now even list the telephone number of the MPO staff as the contact for homeland security rather than the District 11 office. Homeland Security staff has been told not to talk to state and federal officials or the media, but it appears that soon, federal authorities will be talking to them as a result of concerns about the office.

Some questions to be answered are why MPO submitted a Homeland Security budget to the Shelby County Board of Commissioners that seems to conflict with the budget submitted to the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, why current operations circumvent the local executive director of Homeland Security, if personnel costs charged to the federal government are allowable under federal regulations and if present operations comply with funding restrictions.

One thing about these federal reviews is clear. The days of laissez faire federal oversight is over. A clear message is being sent by the feds: agencies accepting and spending federal funds better get serious about conforming to the rules. Or else.