If you ever want to see $40 million of taxpayers' money spent in a month, with no discussion, you need to go to a meeting of the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO).
Who's the MPO, you might ask? It's an organization created by the federal government to coordinate all federal transportation dollars in this region. These are generally matched with state and local funds. Its purpose is to make sure roads in this locale match up with roads in Arkansas and Mississippi. You wouldn't want Third Street to be a couple of miles off-center on its entry into Tunica. That makes sense.
But who makes up this board, where and when does it meet, and what does it really do?
It consists of the mayors in this region — of cities and hamlets, big and small. All the city engineers are in attendance. There's a representative of MATA. It meets once a month at Hudson Hall, an off-the-beaten-path location in the Central Train Station, and it has many sub-committees that meet God knows where and when.
As a newly appointed member of the MATA board this year, I had the occasion to attend a meeting last week. I have a real concern that this community is about to squander hundreds of millions of stimulus and transportation dollars with no coordination.
MATA is spending millions on new buses, consultants, and new high-tech GPS, radio, and security devices. These could be necessary, but unless they fit into an overall transportation scheme, it all could be a huge waste.
It's my opinion that before we start spending these dollars on new roads, we should take care of our crumbling infrastructure. It's like having a home with a crumbling foundation, a leaky roof, and no heating and air-conditioning, but instead of fixing it, setting out to build a new wing.
At the last meeting, I watched the group pass an array of expensive projects calling for traffic coordinating signals for Houston Levee Road, new roads through Shelby Farms, all kinds of I-269 stuff — and every bit of it with no discussion. It was that way all through the 36-item agenda.
When I spoke up to complain that no one knows about this group, that no City Council members ever attend (although I used to, when I could), nor county commissioners, nor any media, I was told by an MPO member: "John, these projects are all vetted through our legislative bodies with citizens' input and work their way up the ladder."
The reality with the MPO is that it's a roadbuilder's/developer's grab bag. Any real citizen input is illusory.
This is sad and frightening. Hasn't anyone heard of urban sprawl? We have major core issues in this community. We have a bus system that needs improvement, light rail that's totally unfunded, crumbling bridges, overpasses and potholes that need immediate attention. This is a city with no growth, merely costly and unproductive population shifts from one part of the county to another.
Item 36 on the agenda of that last meeting was called "Imagine Memphis 2035 Transportation Plan." I guess this was MPO's attempt to show how bold and futuristic they are. Well, here's our future: If we keep spending $50 million a month on unplanned growth, we will have squandered a wonderful opportunity for smart growth and fiscal responsibility.
Members of the MPO will tell you that even though these projects are approved they still have to come before the legislative bodies for ultimate approval. This is true; however, I can tell you from experience, these come as a fait accompli. By the time city and county legislators get them, it's like trying to stop a moving train. The entire development community has already got their seven votes both ways, and it's a done deal.
You will also be told if we don't spend these dollars, they will be reprogrammed and spent elsewhere in Tennessee. That's always been the threat they'll use, but I've never known it to happen, and if it ever did it would be because local government did not have a fallback plan of its own to adapt the unspent funds and didn't lobby hard enough.
I'm not saying the MPO is violating the Sunshine Law or intentionally being secretive, but, as a pundit once said, it's not what's illegal that should be cause for concern, but what is legal.
Someone needs to watch these folks.
(Restaurateur John Vergos is a former member of the Memphis City Council and a current member of the MATA Advisory Board.)