Every day, I have the same thought.

Sitting in the line of traffic in the construction chaos at Walnut Grove between I-240 and Shelby Farms Park, I look at the enormity of thus roadbuilding project and I say to myself: “I don’t know who he is, but clearly, this guy was one monster of a political contributor.”

That’s because road projects like this don’t just happen. They regularly result from a convergence of politically connected developers, campaign financial needs of elected officials and bureaucratic processes driven to a foregone conclusion.

This $36 million project is a classic case study. Watching the doggedness that has characterized its progress through the system for a decade, it’s a testament to the relentless way that some projects push their way through the system while others – often affordable, small-scale and focused on urban neighborhoods – are abandoned at the first sign of an obstacle.

Mastering The Minutiae

That’s rarely the case for projects like Walnut Grove Road. They exist because of arcane processes and little-known approval points that are known only to those who most profit from the knowledge.

Remarkably, for many years, including the years when this project was born, road priorities for local government were essentially set by the Major Roads Committee, a pro-business advisory group that had no official power but still debated projects and forwarded a list of priorities to city and county governments. Routinely, the list then became the official roads list for local government and generally became the priorities for Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO).

The final list was as much a process of lobbying and negotiation as it ever was a discussion of traffic projections and transportation needs. With the backing of the Major Roads Committee, powerful business interests – most with connections to the development industry – lined up behind the projects and local governments weren’t too far behind.

Owning The Process

With gallows humor, it was once joked in the county mayor’s office that if you took each road project and turned the end of it into an arrow, it would point directly at the developer’s property where millions would be made.

On another occasion, planners prepared a map that showed all the property owned by one local developer with unparalleled success for obtaining government help. They then connected all the property in a highway route named for him and it wound all over Shelby County, but as a planner said: “We should just go ahead and build it and be done with it.”

It’s hard to argue with the cynicism that sets in at an early stage of so many planners’ careers over the past 25 years. For decades, they have seen developers move mountains – and get miles and miles of asphalt laid – to the point that Memphis is a leader (#6) in the ranking of cities with the most highway lanes per capita.

Clear Cosequences

Most of the time, all of this may seem like a local political curiosity, if not a fact of life, but with the federal government breathing down the neck of local governments to improve air quality, it’s now finally center stage and hopefully, for the first time, serious thought will be given to overhauling the entire road building process in Memphis and Shelby County.

The tough talk from EPA is the latest evidence in an overwhelming case against local governments’ diffidence while the negative impacts of sprawl became more and more evident – climbing county debt, social costs of sprawl and the almost cultlike devotion to roadbuilding that mirrored the increasing power of developers.

Amazingly, the unsustainable nature of sprawl was largely ignored until the whopping “payment due” bill was delivered to Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton along with his certificate of election.

The Gift

For the previous 20 years, development interests owned the process, and at times, it was as if county government had never met a road it wasn’t willing to build. (It even paid as much as 75 percent of the costs of highways within the smaller towns – although the same offer wasn’t made to Memphis.) While public schools are often the poster child for the suffocating county bond debt, the costs of roads make up a significant part of the total.

Always a gift to the most favored developers, the overabundance of six-lane roads now criss-crossing Shelby County are costly reminders of the time when the development industry owned most of the government processes that could have put the brakes on sprawl. Any staff member – particularly professional planners – would quickly get a target on their backs if they had the audacity to question any part of a project, and they were demoted or ostracized. It was an object lesson that had a chilling effect on the non-appointed employees who spend their lives discerning which way the political winds are blowing.

An aside: it would be a stroke of masterful urban design if city and county governments would now come up with a reclamation project in which the excess lanes of roads all over the county are removed, returning hundreds of acres of land back to green space, and maybe even using them for biking and hiking trails that are considered necessities in cities across the U.S. except in the Memphis traffic engineer’s office.

Unpaid Debts

It’s the fundamental nature of the news media that the remaining debt on The Pyramid is treated like it’s reason enough to chase a poor idea like the Bass Pro Shop megastore, but there’s little thought given to the remaining debt on hundreds of miles of roads that thread their ways through once-bustling parts of Memphis and Shelby County but are now largely abandoned.

Interesting, in recent years, there has been no serious coverage by the daily news media of the intricacies of the process for setting road priorities, and except for wizened Commercial Appeal veteran Jimmie Covington and Memphis Flyer’s old pro John Branston, there’s no one who seems to know that it exists, much less understand it. They were the first – and the only – reporters who have seen the news value of writing about the straight line between developer, politician and road project, and Mr. Branston in particular has been a voice in the wilderness about it for years.

For decades, developers owned local government, but most of the time these days, it’s more of a lease.

The Brontosaurus

The shift hasn’t come as much from heightened concerns by elected officials about government integrity as much from the realities of the tightening public budgets and the deepening debt of city and county governments. These have all but killed the spirit of largesse that typified decisions for so many years.

Perhaps, if we are lucky, the Walnut Grove Road project will come to be a dinosaur from a past time – one of the last gifts to developers. But even with budget realities staring elected officials in their faces, it will take serious diligence to change things because developers show a Dick Cheney-like skill at manipulating obscure public processes and interpreting policies to their benefit.

Such is politics, some would say, but the fact is that the public’s voice has been so systematically excluded from these conversations that it lends credence to the conclusion that it’s more like special political access to the favored few.

The Bias

All of this occurs to me as I wait for the slow lanes of traffic to inch along Walnut Grove Road, dodging orange barrels, construction debris, cranes and rubber neckers. It also occurs to me that ultimately, developers will try to use the expanded road and massive bridge as justification for plowing ahead into Shelby Farms, as traffic engineers perpetuate their bias that parkland is a prime road site because it’s free.

This bias was most powerfully proven by the 24-27 new lanes of traffic aimed directly at the 4,500 acres of Shelby Farms Park. This doesn’t include the new lanes that the engineers would like to add to “improve” Walnut Grove Road.

Looking at the wish list for road projects, it’s clear that engineers haven’t yet abandoned their tendency to propose and pursue designs that are based on three hours of traffic a day – rush hour.

Baffling The Opposition

And get ready for the justifications. If statistics can be said to justify any point of view, that’s particularly true of traffic projections. Because they are only understood by a few, engineers intimidate lay legislators whose votes are needed with explanations that sound like expositions on the Torah. And if it’s true that 10 rabbis can give 10 different interpretations on a Torah passage, it’s equally true that 10 traffic engineers can reach 10 different conclusions – it that’s the results wanted by their clients.

Primarily because of the county engineer’s more enlightened views on road design, Shelby County is outpacing City of Memphis in making decisions that make more sense, that are more sustainable and create communities that are more livable. If, in fact, Mayor Wharton in time decides to enter the mayor’s race for Memphis, one of his prime motivations is to transform transportation and urban design (translation: the city traffic engineer would need to get his resume updated).

There is an encouraging awakening that’s taking place – reflected in context sensitive highway design processes, an interest in bike paths and other alterative transportation, more appreciation for “green assets,” the connection between sprawl and health and an emphasis on good design.

It’s just a beginning. But it’s a start. Finally.