City Reporter 

City Reporter

MATA Lite?

Transit authority unveils plans for citywide light-rail system.

By Chris Davis

On Monday night at MIFA, the Memphis Area Transit Authority unveiled plans to construct a light-rail system connecting downtown Memphis to Memphis International Airport. The airport corridor, which will also provide easy access to the FedEx hub, was chosen over a northern and an eastern corridor due to both residential density and business density in the area.

The long-term plan is to connect all of the Memphis and Shelby County area with light rail. The project has been dubbed MATATRAC -- Together Reaching All Communities.

The exact route the rail system will take has yet to be decided, but four routes are being considered.

Under Alternative 1, modern commuter trains will run from the end of the trolley line at Madison and Cleveland, travel down Madison, turn south on Cooper, east on Young, and south again on Airways. This plan not only connects downtown to the airport but also provides easy access to the shops and restaurants of Overton Square and Cooper-Young. There is some concern about the narrowness of Young Avenue, which has yet to be addressed.

Alternative 2A also originates from the Madison Avenue trolley line. This route turns south on Pauline then follows Lamar to Airways. Alternative 2B connects from the Main Street trolley at Vance then picks up on a stretch of the BNSF Railroad behind The Commercial Appeal building and follows this rail route to Airways.

Alternative 3 connects to the Madison line at I-240 and follows the interstate to Airways then links to an unused underground tunnel at the airport. The tunnel was created to house a people-mover that was never installed. Though any route may ultimately connect to this tunnel, it has only been mocked up as part of Alternative 3.

Alternative 3 will certainly be the fastest route since the commuter trains will travel no faster than the regular speed limit on any given route, but it is also projected to be the most expensive. Of course, at a projected $20 million to $40 million per mile none of the alternatives is cheap.

Though they follow existing traffic routes, the commuter trains will not be affected by traffic jams and will be given priority at intersections.


Battling a Common Foe

Three groups unite to host HIV/AIDS conference.

By Janel Davis

As of the end of December 2000, 774,467 AIDS cases in the U.S. had been reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Shelby County Health Department reported 554 new HIV cases and 238 new AIDS cases for 2001, bringing the total number of cases here to 5,257 and 2,774, respectively. With those numbers steadily increasing each year for certain demographics, especially African Americans and women, three local organizations have combined to educate the community about the epidemic.

The African-American Pastors Consortium (AAPC) and the Regional Medical Center, which have hosted the HIV/AIDS Leadership Conference for six years, will be joined this year by local chapters of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. (DST).

"DST, Inc., recognizes the devastating effects that the HIV virus has had on the lives of African Americans," says Charlotte Freeman, chair of the Program Planning and Summit V Committee of DST. "Our international program, Sisters for Life, emphasizes and advocates prevention, intervention, and research in the area of HIV and African-American women.

"Women are becoming affected at disproportionate rates in the Memphis community," she continues. "The activities implemented during this week represent the very essence of our sorority's cardinal virtues and programmatic thrusts: displaying compassion, encouraging education, embracing fellowship, and honoring community service."

All 900-plus chapters of DST, Inc., including the international chapters, have been mandated by the national headquarters to observe an international day of service on March 9th dealing with the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

The week of conference events begins Sunday, March 3rd, with a candlelight march and healing service, continuing through the week with a pastors' education seminar and professionals' education seminar. The events culminate Saturday, March 9th, with a youth rally and gospel fest.

"It is the goal of the collaborative to reach as many people as possible in this community regarding the devastation of the virus HIV, which causes AIDS," says Carole Dickens, AAPC education director/consultant and conference coordinator. "This is a disease, [which], with the proper education, is 100 percent preventable."

Seven years ago the pastors' consortium convened to address the high rate of infection and disease among African Americans. It began with the effects of substance abuse, tobacco, alcohol, illicit drugs, unprotected sex, and improper eating habits. The group's mission grew to include AIDS education and prevention, while providing services such as spiritual counseling, agency referrals, and HIV testing.


Here's Johnnie!

MCS is getting rid of its reform models and changing gears

By Mary Cashiola

The Memphis City Schools SYSTEM seems happy with its superintendent, a preliminary report shows.

George Nerren of the Tennessee School Board Association (TSBA) said Monday night that Johnnie B. Watson received good marks under all the key areas on the preliminary assessment, the highest being community relationship.

Recent reports have accused members of the board, especially parental advocate Wanda Halbert, to be at odds with the superintendent.

The evaluation process began last May with a preliminary assessment form; seven of the nine forms sent out to board members were returned. Nerren then conducted interviews with the board and the superintendent in August and December.

"These are very complimentary remarks for your director of schools," says Nerren.

The formal evaluation, which will focus on 45 general areas as well as specific objectives that the superintendent must meet, will not be completed until February 2003. The board wanted data from the state's report card included, and those are issued around November each year.

Board members pointed out that the superintendent's first formal evaluation would be in the second semester of his third year as superintendent. Watson has a three-year contract.

"The preliminary assessment wasn't a formal evaluation," conceded Nerren, "but it was a reflection of the board's impression of the superintendent's performance."

Because the board wanted a continuous evaluation process, the February evaluation will be followed by another in June or July, starting a twice-yearly cycle. The board also wanted the evaluation tied to Watson's strategic plan for the district.

Watson said he was comfortable with the evaluation criteria and recommended the adoption of the guidelines.


License Revoked?

Examiner's death could change driver's license laws.

By Rebekah Gleaves

The arrests of five men at the Summer Avenue driver testing center on February 5th may have provided some Tennessee legislators with the support they need to repeal a controversial law.

State Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-Williamson County) and state Representative Donna Rowland (R-Murfreesboro) failed in their efforts last year to repeal Public Chapter 158, the law that allows Tennessee driver-testing centers to issue driver's licenses to persons without Social Security numbers. But that was before September 11th and before five Middle-Eastern men claimed they each paid Katherine Smith, a testing center inspector, $1,000 to fraudulently issue them driver's licenses.

Smith was found burned to death in a mysterious car accident one day before she was scheduled to testify against the men.

With the license scandal making headlines nationally, Blackburn and Rowland's bill is being taken seriously this year by legislators who disregarded it last year, and activists and members of Tennessee's immigrant community are starting to get nervous.

"Since September 11th, [Blackburn has] been trying to ride the anti-immigrant sentiment," says David Lubell, community outreach coordinator for Latino Memphis Connection. "Last year she used the long lines as her reason, but then the lines got shorter and she didn't get anywhere with that reason. Since September 11th, she's been working off people's fears."

After introducing the bill, Blackburn stated the following in a June 7, 2001, press release: "It is not fair to law-abiding citizens of Tennessee nor is it fair to legal aliens and documented workers with proper documentation. They are no longer able to obtain their licenses in a timely fashion."

But Blackburn insists that now her motivation has changed.

"It's a public-safety issue," she says. "If you don't know the criminal and driving history of a person, you don't know who you are licensing."

This is a statement that makes Zilka Roman laugh out loud. The Tennessee state director for the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), Roman worries that if Blackburn succeeds in repealing the current license law public safety will be compromised.

"We won't even know who these people are without a license," says Roman. "We won't be able to track them. With the current law we've already been able to account for 50,000 more people living in Tennessee. Do you think we knew who these people were before? Absolutely not. This issue is about safety. People are going to drive whether they are licensed or not. If they are licensed we will know who they are and we can be assured that they know the rules of the road."

The Tennessee Department of Safety agrees with Roman.

"The department of safety's stance on this issue hasn't changed," says Beth Tucker Womack, public information officer for the department. "We want to make sure that people who are driving know the rules of the road. We didn't just open the floodgates with this law."

According to the Tennessee Department of Safety, in order to qualify for a driver's license a person without a Social Security number must: 1) sign an affidavit affirming that they have never been issued a Social Security number, 2) provide two forms of official government-issued identification, one with a photo, 3) provide two proofs of Tennessee residency, usually a utility and/or phone bill, and 4) pass the necessary tests.

In the Katherine Smith case, Lubell believes that the fraudulent licenses would have been issued with or without the current law.

"The reason why those people came to Tennessee from another state was to get a driver's license from a corrupt official," says Lubell. "Otherwise, why would they pay $1,000 for a driver's license? If the law is so lax, why would they have to bribe a public official?"

But Blackburn says that even the perception of relaxed licensing laws has already negatively impacted the state.

"Reciprocity has already been rescinded by some other states," says Blackburn, referring to the recent policy change in Florida. Officials in that state now say that a Tennessee driver's license alone will not be accepted as valid identification.

"It's important that we address this issue," says Blackburn.

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