Map of Long Range Transportation Plan Projects

It’s easier to think of reasons why the University of Memphis should have kept football coach Larry Porter than reasons we should keep the Memphis MPO.

The MPO (Memphis Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization) has a  record of failure when it comes to rational, well-reasoned transportation planning and it is mockery of the federal government’s new emphasis on livability and sustainability.

If sprawl is a smoking gun, there’s little doubt that MPO’s fingerprints are on the weapon.  If there is a poster child for bureaucratic processes that waste time and money, it is the MPO.  If there is an agency masquerading as regional that is truly more suburban and rural-dominated, we don’t know of one.

We are thinking of this history as we looked at the MPO’s 2040 Long-Range Transportation Plan (LRTP) which began with such great fanfare and appears to be on the verge of replicating the same irrational transportation planning that is quintessentially the Memphis MPO.  We had such high hopes for this planning process when it began with its promise for more openness, new outreach, and new vision, but in the end, it’s at risk to be more of the same, lacking the promised degree of transparency, a logical methodology for setting priorities, and a compelling framework for decision-making.

The Wrong Focus

The MPO has made progress in finally recognizing the value of a bike and pedestrian-oriented plan, even if it take a nudge from the federal government to do it.  Even with this improvement, the real agenda is still auto-focused.

The 2040 LRTP is a serious missed opportunity at the exact moment when the wisdom of smart planning and the need to reverse previous mistakes seem to have general acceptance and support.   That’s why the current map of the LRTP is precisely what we don’t need in this community now and why it is so out of touch with the prevailing understanding of what makes communities work and succeed.

The current map for the LRTP reflects the sprawl-inducing personality of the agency.  First, it fueled sprawl and now its plan rewards it.  At a time when there is no argument that the costs of sprawl are unsustainable and that increasing urban densities are keys to affordable government and successful economies, the MPO treats decisions on highways as political transactions rather than economic development investments that they should be.

The fixation on congestion mitigation has produced massive expenditures on roadways that do little to create jobs and new economic development investments while economic arteries are ignored.  There are numerous highways in our region that are built to six-lanes to solve congestion that exists for a few hours each weekday.  Then there are highways like the vital logistics highway, Lamar, that have been trying for more than a decade to get the attention that it demands and that is vital for economic development.

Self-fulfilling Prophecy

Meanwhile, the LRTP embraces a mindless approach to smart infrastructure investment, the kind that bolsters and contributes to real economic development.  Perhaps, that’s the obvious by-product of a board that’s heavy on politicians and light on any members who know how our regional economy works and how to  measure the what highways should really be – investments in new jobs and new economic activity.

We share the deep concern of the Downtown Memphis Commission and others that the LRTP does nothing as effectively as accelerating the disinvestment in Memphis, the city whose present and future drive the future of this entire region.

The MPO is in the process of finalizing its plan, and it’s time for all of us who are weary of its lack of strategic vision to scream loudly about its current direction, because it is unquestionably failing in its stated goals of promoting a more livable community and sustainable development patterns.

Transportation infrastructure spending drives the location of private development, and with a plan directing almost all of this investment outside the I-240 loop, the MPO is creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of continued sprawl and unsustainable growth.   Without a comprehensive growth plan and the incorporation of economic development strategies, the current LRTP methodology will continue to perpetuate the same unsustainable pattern that it has for decades.

As we’ve written before, we need an Office of Connecting the Dots and that’s never been more obvious than with the LRTP.  It flies in the face of the goals and strategies in the Sustainable Shelby plan, the Sustainable Communities philosophy, and other steps that have been made and will now be crushed by the LRTP’s big decisions on where transportation dollars will be spent.


MPO is one of those arcane, little-known public agencies with huge impact on our future, and it’s past time to shine a spotlight on a process that remains broken and a structure that is unrepresentative and unfair to the needs of Memphis.

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 more than 300 MPO’s, ushering in equal time for cleaner air, energy conservation, and social equity.

Central cities are routinely underrepresented in the voting of the largest 50 MPO’s, but only one city is more weighted outside the major city as much as 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.

A report by Brookings Institution about five years ago on 50 large MPOs in the U.S. concluded that Memphis has the third most unbalanced board. While the City of Memphis had 63 percent of the total population, it had only 16 percent of MPO members. Meanwhile, suburbs with 32 percent of the population control 79 percent of the vote.

Time for Reform

In addition, Memphis was cited as one of the most racially unequal. Despite Memphis’ large African-American population, 84 percent of MPO’s members were white. “That MPO boards do not reflect the geographic or racial composition of the metropolitan populations they serve should be a cause for concern, especially given that MPOs were intended by the federal framers to be an essential conduit for implementing reforms and ensuring public accountability,” the report said.

Nothing has improved since the Brookings report.  That’s why it’s time for elected representatives of Memphis – from City Council to County Commission and to the U.S. Congress – to take every possible action – legal, political, and through U.S. DOT policies – to eliminate the disproportionate representation that disenfranchises the interests of the people of Memphis.

Shelby County Commissioner Mike Ritz met a stonewall when he raised this serious issue a couple of years ago, but he was on the right track.  Unbelievably, he couldn’t get enough support on the board of commissioners – the majority of members represent the disenfranchised city of Memphis – to address the issue in a way that would get the attention of federal officials concerned about civil rights issues and fundamental fairness.

The fairest option is weighted voting (16 of the 50 large MPOs use it) which apportions votes based on each government’s share of the total population. That avoids the kinds of disparities that happen here, where the vote of the Memphis mayor (population: 646,889) can be cancelled out by the vote of the mayor of Walls (population: 1,162) and trumped by the mayor of Gallaway (population: 680).

We can only imagine the howls if the roles were reversed.

Cause and Effect

This voting imbalance is a direct cause of imbalances in transportation policy and it’s easy to see why with the makeup of the Memphis MPO:

Governor, State of Tennessee
Governor, State of Mississippi
Commissioner, Tennessee Department of Transportation
Executive Director, Mississippi Department of Transportation
Mayor, Shelby County
Mayor, City of Bartlett
Mayor, City of Memphis
Mayor, City of Germantown
Mayor, Town of Collierville
Mayor, City of Lakeland
Mayor, Town of Arlington
Mayor, City of Millington
Mayor, Fayette County
Mayor, City of Braden
Mayor, City of Piperton
Mayor, City of Gallaway
Mayor, City of Olive Branch
Mayor, City of Southaven
Mayor City of Hernando
Mayor City of Horn Lake
Mayor City of Walls
Chairperson, Memphis Area Transit Authority
Chairperson, Memphis and Shelby County Port Commission
President, Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority
President, DeSoto County, Mississippi Board of Supervisors

Worst to Come

This imbalance will only get worse.

New area from Marshall County, Tipton County, and Fayette County is set to be added to the MPO, which means that without fundamental reform of the agency, its high-flown rhetoric about livability and vibrancy are little more than a continued bait and switch.