A Driving Force 

Their slogan could be -- if car manufacturer Volkswagen hadn't already taken it -- "Drivers Wanted." The Memphis Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) began a series of public meetings this week about "Destination 2030," a long-range transportation plan for all of

Shelby County and parts of Fayette and DeSoto counties.

"We look at everybody's transportation plan: Memphis, Bartlett, Collierville, Piperton," says MPO senior planner Michelle Stuart. "Then we try to project what's going to happen in 20 years and what transportation needs need to be met by then."

An agency that is funded by federal planning grants but includes representatives from local government and transportation offices on its board, the MPO examines everything from bike paths to transit, freight, airplane, and, of course, automobile travel.

"Our main goal is a transportation system that meets air quality [standards], reduces congestion, and provides for the movement of freight and goods," says MPO coordinator Martha Lott.

So what will the transporation system actually look like in the year 2030? Probably not like The Jetsons' spaceship travel or Minority Report pods, but other than that, the MPO can't yet say.

"That's what we want to know from the public," says Stuart. "What type of transportation system do they want? Then we'll figure out how to get us there."

I'm going to venture a guess that most people's vision of the future includes dreams of the International Auto Show in Detroit. The MPO's last long-range plan -- Destination 2023 -- documented a 20-year decrease in the average vehicle occupancy in Memphis, from 1.9 persons in the 1970s to 1.3 persons in the 1990s.

But whereas the public might be thinking automobiles all the way, the MPO has reasons to keep other modes of transportation in mind. For instance, Shelby County currently doesn't meet air-quality standards.

"Encouraging people to bike or ride transit are important parts of what we'd like to see in the plan," says Stuart.

But what will it take for that to happen? Bicyclists have complained that riding in Memphis is like taking your life in your hands. And a policy analysis published last week by the Washington, D.C.-based Cato Institute reported that despite national transit subsidies doubling since 1990, total ridership increased by less than 10 percent.

The MPO's Destination 2030 is sort of a "wish list" of projects that could benefit the area. To receive any future federal funding, projects must be included on the long-range plan. But shorter three-year plans function more as the road map for area transportation projects.

"Those are the projects that are actually going to be funded in the next three years, based on the allocations we receive," says Lott. "As new projects are added, if we have a bicycle route that has been designated for that road [on the long-range plan], if it's to be improved or widened, then those roads will be marked and striped [with bicycle lanes]."

But public transit may go down a different road.

"We're doing an economic impact study for light rail to see where there's a need or if there's a need and if it will work for us," says Stuart. "MATA has done some corridor studies and some basic needs stuff, but this will be very detailed."

The MPO is also asking for public opinion about light rail on its Destination 2030 survey. The question, "Do you agree that federal funding for a light rail should be a priority for MATA?" is asked, along with other juicy questions such as, "What is the worst transportation problem in the Memphis area?" and, "What is the worst congested area?"

I'm already drafting my answers and I would urge others to do the same. The MPO is federally mandated to get citizen input, but private interests see more of an incentive to get involved.

"Transportation planning is not something everyone wants to go to ... until it affects them," says Lott. "If people are involved on the front end, they're going to know that there's an opportunity or a chance that this road project is going to go through. When it gets to the final stage where the road is ready to go through and nobody has voiced any concerns, then the citizens don't have a lot to stand on."

And I'm sure we've all driven roads -- or been on trolleys -- where we thought: What were the people who planned this thinking?

"Where we might see a congestion issue, the citizens in that community might not," says Lott. "We could be looking at a model ... but when you actually go into the community, [it's not there]."

"Citizens know their areas much better than we do, or the board does," adds Stuart.

For a copy of the survey, go to DPDGOV.com. And then, to paraphrase NASCAR: Ladies and gentlemen, start your ink pens.

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