The drumbeat of the asphalt lobby is getting louder, and as it has been so often, its persistent beat hypnotizes elected officials who should know better.

What is it anyway about otherwise logical people who suspend all logic and sense of balance when roads come into play? How do so many of these hypnotized people end up in positions where they make decisions about roads?

If you doubt our cynicism, just consider the last time you heard about a major road project voted down. Instead, people in appointed elected offices and economic development officials paid with our tax dollars, who are entrusted to make sound transportation decisions, cavalierly pave over Memphis’ future with more and more sprawl and less and less conscience about the consequences for the urban heart that keeps the regional economy beating.

Lost In The Wilderness

Somewhere, we lost our way.

We lost the perspective that all of life and the life of our city in particular is about making the right choices, and every vote of our local legislative bodies is in fact making a choice.

We lost the idea that the quality of life of our city is much more important than the quality of our ability to move freight through our community.

We lost our sense of priority, buying into the belief that nothing is more important than moving cars, even if it means moving Memphis into the danger zone.

We lost our ability to be consistent. The same people who are now putting a pretty face on I-269 through north Mississippi – which the state sees as a heavy competitive advantage – are the same people who told us last year that we had to give away more tax freezes to compete with the Mississippi.

No Room For Mistakes

Here’s why this matters so much. Memphis has no margin for error.

If we are to succeed and change our trajectory, we have to do an awful lots of things right. Decisions on highways and transportation here are not only not right; they are disastrously wrong.

How is it that there is such a clear, consensus opinion that we have paid a devastating price for highway decisions that fueled sprawl and hollowed out Memphis, and despite that, in an act of cognitive dissonance, we unbelievably continue on blithely with the same misguided attitudes toward road-building.

This assault on reason continues to most dramatically play out in the advocacy of I-269.

It’s a case study of the way that political insiders and development interests are able to win even when they appear to have lost. I-269 was apparently blocked when Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, Shelby County Mayor Jim Rout, the county delegation of the Tennessee Legislature and Center City Commission opposed the inexplicable I-269 interstate loop that sweeps through North Mississippi and swings along the easternmost edge of Shelby County.

Facts Of Life

The mayors’ opposition was persuasive and unshakable. At least in the beginning.

But developers are different than regular people. Once a decision seems to be decided, the public moves on. Developers move in and game the system through operatives and apologists who back door the system, looking for soft spots in the decision-making process and painting elected officials into corners, where exhausted and politically hemmed in, they almost uniformly give in.

That’s what happened with Mayor Herenton and Mayor Rout with I-269. Although they thought they had made the final decision to put a nail into the coffin of the project, developers and their operatives simply went under the radar, joining hands with Mississippi officials who were determined to use the interstate through Northern DeSoto to open up the green fields for developers.

With few options but surrender, the mayors eventually acquiesced, angry and frustrated.

It’s a seminal fact of life about the system. There is always the force that comes from those driven by their financial benefit – developers and highway builders and from those driven by their political benefits. That both groups can be so single-minded in their self-interest to the detriment of the overall health of Memphis is something best left for psychologists to study, but it is odd how often short-term financial and political interests trump long-term sound public policy.

One Trick Pony

It’s the sort of mentality that blandly accepts as reasonable that our roads and highways should be built as if it is always 8 a.m. or 5 p.m. It’s the sort of philosophy that answers every question about better transportation with more roads. God knows that there is always an engineering study to justify more and more roads.

MATA offers third-world public transit. So what do we do? Build more highways.

Neighborhoods are begging for bike lanes. So what do we do? Build more highways.

Yes, people want “complete streets” that offer transportation alternatives. So what do we do? Build more highways.

It was utterly unbelievable a decade ago, but it’s just unconscionable now. Despite dire warnings of gridlock that act as if we the need to give people a way to drive from Nashville to Jackson, Mississippi, without even seeing Memphis from the interstate, there’s really no crisis.

Need For A Detour

In a comparison with 35 large metros (see the list at the end of this post), including all of our peer cities, federal government data show that Memphis is #27 in the annual cost of delay per peak traveler, #25 in travel time index, #28 in commute time and #22 in change in travel time index. Meanwhile, we have the same freeway lanes per square mile as Boston and more than Chicago and Philadelphia.

The U.S. Public Interest Research Group said that Memphis is 6th in the number of lanes of highways per capita, and our community was cited by the Federal Highway Administration for lack of safe alternative forms of transportation.

It hardly sounds like the makings of catastrophe. Funny, we’re fourth from the bottom in transit capacity, but you don’t hear any of the usual suspects calling for a 21st century transit system.

That’s the thing about transportation planning. There’s little consideration for what the public really wants and even less consideration about what makes successful Memphis neighborhoods and the damage that is done by the present transportation policies.

* Cities in study: Los Angeles, San Diego, Baltimore, San Francisco, San Antonio, St. Louis, Charlotte, Kansas City, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Columbux, Salt Lake City, Washington D.C., Denver, Louisville, New York, Seattle, Miami, Milwaukee, Oklahoma City, Portland, Cincinnati, Dallas, Detroit, Houston, Minneapolis, Nashville, Phoenix, Boston, Memphis, Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Austin and Atlanta