There are public agencies buried so deep in local government that they would make Tony Soprano envious, and their unassuming names give no hint of their impact.

Poster child for these agencies is the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), the federally-mandated regional conduit for hundreds of millions of transportation dollars.

On paper, the organization was created to broaden priorities, encourage public participation, and most revolutionary of all, balance environmental and transportation needs. In reality, though, if sprawl is a smoking gun, prominent fingerprints on it are the MPO.

Business As Usual

That’s because for decades, its decisions skewed toward asphalt at the expense of alternatives. Its policies treated public transit and park/ride lots as afterthoughts, and bike lanes and walking trails as mere ornaments. This highway-centric focus led to environmental advocates being seen as pariahs, if not kooks. It also led to ideas like light rail getting bogged down in process while massive suburban highways were treated as indispensable.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (only the federal government could dream up such a name, complete with inevitable acronym, ISTEA) was supposed to be a renaissance for the more than 300 MPO’s, ushering in equal time for cleaner air, energy conservation, and social equity.

Here, it was business as usual, which wasn’t surprising considering the MPO’s strong loyalties to development.

Tail Wagging The Dog

Central cities are routinely underrepresented in the voting of the largest 50 MPO’s, but only one city is more weighted toward the suburbs than Memphis. According to the Brookings Institution, the Memphis population accounts for more than 60 percent of the total MPO population, but only 16 per cent of its members represent Memphis. Meanwhile, 84 percent of the members are white in a region that is on the verge of being majority African-American.

Sixteen cities have shifted to weighted voting, so the central city, with more population, gets more votes. (Portland, Oregon, even elects its members, who operate the convention center, performing arts center, stadium parks, land use, and transportation for a three-county, 24-city region.)

Here, the vote by the mayor of Memphis can be cancelled out by the vote of the mayor of Olive Branch, and when all of the suburban mayors of DeSoto County, Fayette County, and Shelby County band together, they can swamp the votes cast by Memphis interests.

Higher Ambition

Despite this, the MPO continues to be an impact player for Memphis, albeit one with little visibility to the broader community. Finally, the MPO is beginning to show signs of a new sensitivity to environmental issues and to bike paths, which are considered as integral to the transportation infrastructure as roadways in other cities.

This new philosophy stakes out a direction that could move the agency to the front page, or at least to the front page for other than embarrassing stories like when it flirted with losing its federal funds for failure to follow policy and for its role in the $6.5 million misuse of federal funds in construction of the FedEx Forum garage.

Sleight Of Hand

These problems were made even more striking in contrast to the Nashville MPO, which was leading development of the $40 million Music City Star commuter train from Nashville to Lebanon.

Meanwhile, in Memphis, there could be no federal funds for the FedEx Forum garage without the MPO. Its chairman, then County Mayor Jim Rout, called a special meeting to amend a transportation plan approved only 10 months earlier, but MPO approval was needed for $20 million in federal funds to be spent to “construct parking and an intermodal transfer facility near the intersection of Third and Linden.”

The MPO resolution promising the money for the garage shifted it from projects lowering auto emissions, increasing the use of mass transit, and decreasing traffic congestion. The resolution was mailed to federal highway officials, and attached to it was a letter setting out the fine and imprisonment that could result from failure to comply with it. A few days later, Rout and Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton signed an agreement that promised the garage and its profits to the Grizzlies.

New Direction

All in all, it was a black eye for the MPO, because accountability was supposed to be key to its work when it was created by the federal government.

These days, the MPO – under the chairmanship of another county mayor, A C Wharton – is developing the transportation plan required by law. It has one of those high-sounding names the public sector loves – Destination 2030 – but if nothing else, it promises to reverse development trends the MPO has helped to fuel for the past 25 years.

*This post was previously published as Memphis magazine’s City Journal column.