The Tennessee Legislature is flirting with the idea of toll roads to fill the gap in road funding.

We cast our vote for Highway 385.

It’s the most expensive gift ever given in this county to developers and to sprawl, and it’s time to make them pay a fair share of the costs associated with it.

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. 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.

For 385, there was the obligatory traffic engineering 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 of the economic cost 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.

As for 385, already, the daily traffic count is about 250,000 vehicles. In the future, with much of Highway 385 serving as I-269 – the unjustifiable 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 left.

In an 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. The layer of city out there is not the result of population growth, but population movement, and as we’ve seen, the cost of that to the public sector is financially unsustainable.

Right now, with a $1 toll, the Highway 385 toll road would generate $87 million a year, and in a perfect world, it would be split between state government to pay for alternative transportation, between 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.