Light rail is coming to Memphis, but is Memphis ready for it?

If you've driven along Madison Avenue west of Cleveland recently, chances are you've sworn a blue streak and vowed never to do so again, at least not until the medical center trolley extension has been completed -- in 2004. These days, Madison is a dirty, dusty obstacle course of barrels and orange cones arranged so that it is often difficult for even the most observant drivers to discern whether or not the street is even open, let alone which lane to use. At Third Street, Madison narrows to one lane, made narrower still by cars, trucks, and utility vehicles parked along the curb. At Second Street, both lanes close, effectively blocking the one-way stretch of road all the way to its terminus at Front Street.

For most motorists, it's a hassle they can avoid by taking other routes. For business owners in the construction zone, who have little choice but to endure the inconvenience, it's a waking nightmare. Some owners say customer traffic has declined up to 60 percent or more. They are upset that MATA, which has been planning this extension since 1997, did no research into the negative effects such major construction might have on local businesses. Such was the reluctant confession at a February meeting between MATA officials and area merchants.

"We thought about it," says MATA director of planning and capital projects Tom Fox. Center City Commission (CCC) president Jeff Sanford refers to the situation as "the price of progress." Of course, it's a price he doesn't have to pay directly. It's also a price that, apparently unbeknownst to Memphis policymakers, other cities facing similar situations -- Dallas, Baltimore, Portland, Oregon, and Salt Lake City for example -- have deemed unacceptable. This official response, however, came as no big surprise to small, and especially new, business owners who have been hit hardest by the development. For them the message being sent only confirms what they've come to believe: Light rail is Memphis' manifest destiny, casualties be damned.

To its credit, MATA has attempted to change its stance somewhat. Public-relations director Alison Burton has offered to use print advertising and possibly television time originally purchased to promote the downtown trolley system to promote businesses along Madison instead. The foundations for an advertising campaign have since been laid and MATA has begun to try to make up for initial failures. It has begun to scrape dust from the sidewalks to make them more "suit-friendly." Sandwich boards have been erected at major intersections alerting motorists that stores on Madison are still open. And MATA has even hired restaurants and delis in the area to cater its lunch meetings.

Though the outlook is still bleak, business owners originally predicting inevitable bankruptcy now claim to see at least a glimmer of daylight at the end of a construction tunnel that could last between eight months and two years, depending on their location. Some, however, remain in dire straits with no real relief in sight.

The medical center rail extension is only the beginning of a much larger construction project. By 2020 MATA plans to have constructed a trio of corridors stretching to the north and south and to the east as far as Collierville, linking all of Memphis with modern high-capacity trains. Knowing this, it might be helpful to compare what has been considered in planning Memphis' estimated $20 million- to $40 million-per-mile light-rail system to what has been done in other cities.

Point Of Departure (You Are Here)

After operating an appointment-only hair salon at 317 Madison for nearly a dozen years, Greg Thibodeaux decided to gamble on downtown development. He'd seen the success of nearby AutoZone Park. His business virtually butted up to a massive apartment building that was under construction, and he knew the new downtown elementary school was going to be built across the street. Hoping to reap the benefits of his location, he decided to convert his shop to a pizza parlor. It seemed to make sense at the time, and at first, Thibodeaux claims, everything was smooth-sailing.

"We were getting a lot of customers," he says, "especially before the baseball games. People would park here -- up to 64 cars -- and they would come in for something to eat or drink before the game." Off-season business had been somewhat less but still steady until the rail construction kicked into high gear. Now the ground outside Somewhere Pizza is being ripped up, possibly causing the crack that runs along the restaurant's western wall, across the floor, across the parking lot, and up the wall of the neighboring building. Heavy earth-moving vehicles obscure his storefront, intimidating passing motorists already confused by the cones, barrels, and fencing. Pedestrians approaching Somewhere Pizza from the west must walk into the street amid cars, trucks, and bulldozers. In two days he's seen a scant six customers.

As the construction noise outside his shop becomes unbearable, Thibodeaux shrugs, almost amused by the hopelessness of his situation. "If things don't change, I'm going to have to declare bankruptcy," he says. "I just don't see any other way around it." As the property owner, he had hoped the CCC might help him acquire a low-interest loan to get him over the hump.

"They said they could help with a loan if I wanted to renovate, but I don't need to renovate. I need something to help me till the construction is over," Thibodeaux says.

Richard Alley, owner of the Tobacco Bowl, a business that has operated on Madison Avenue for half a century, no longer thinks bankruptcy is his only option, but he's decidedly unhappy that his business has been cut in half. Sandi Degasperis, who operates the relatively new Overstuffed Deli west of Second, where Madison is totally closed to all but pedestrians, says she's "going to hang on like a pit bull." But to do so she has already had to lay off one employee. Jack Yacoubian at Yacoubian Jewelers raises his hands in frustration and notes that he will pay for the trolley twice: first as a businessman in the construction zone, later as a taxpayer.

Each shopkeeper has wondered aloud what meaningful civic assistance would entail: Loans? Tax abatements? A utility freeze? Improved communication? They are all certain something could have been done to better prepare them for their present situation. They just don't know what.

"I'm not aware of that kind of program existing anywhere," says Sanford regarding the possibility of tax abatements or low-interest loans. If anyone knows, it should be Sanford, since the CCC represents an official partnership between local government and the private business community in downtown's revitalization. "That would be unprecedented," he continues. "That doesn't make it a bad idea, of course. But I would still have to seriously question, at least in some cases, whether businesses that can't withstand the improvement of a street or a sidewalk [were]viable to begin with. Going into these situations, some businesses are more viable than others, but they are all yelling at the same feverous pitch. It's hard to separate out the real causes and the real effects."

Here Sanford makes an excellent point, but it's difficult to question the viability of many of the businesses reporting significant losses. James Dempsey, owner of Stewart Brothers Hardware at the eastern end of the construction zone, calls the impact "devastating." He adds, "People can't get in and out of the driveway." Stewart Brothers has thrived in its current location since 1937. If that's not convincing enough, consider the Union Planters bank branch on Madison near Third, which, in spite of a general enthusiasm for the rail extension, has noted a 25 percent decline in customer traffic.

"That's not nearly as bad as when Union Planters took its headquarters out of downtown Memphis," Sanford retorts.

Even the manager of the Walgreens at Madison and Main, which, like its neighbor the Map Room, officially fronts on the mall, has reported a negative impact. If a corporate giant selling basic necessities is feeling a pinch, it can only be assumed that a tiny, family-owned coffee shop/music club like the Map Room is taking a severe hit. According to owner Jason Brasher, it is. Brasher says that if it weren't for his landlord's reluctant but understanding reduction in rent he would have to close the Map Room's doors permanently.

"They have been good tenants," landlord Pinckney Herbert says of the Map Room. "They may have been a little late once or twice but they have always paid their rent in full, and they are constantly working to improve [the property]. This isn't their fault. It's just a mindset. Nobody wants to go anywhere near Madison. Everybody wants to avoid the construction."

One of Brasher's biggest complaints has been that bulldozers have been parked and left unattended in front of his entrance. Calls to Hill Brothers' Construction to have the situation remedied were ineffective. He says when he complained, they hung up on him.

It's hard to imagine this same sort of thing happening if Brasher's business had been located in Salt Lake City, Utah.

"Everyone is interested in seeing that construction issues are minimized," says Brandon Bott, community-involvement specialist for Utah Transit Authority. His title should be a clue to the importance UTA places on community satisfaction. His organization's plans to mitigate the inconveniences of construction are extensive and creative, giving business owners a great deal of leverage and authority, especially where contractors are concerned.

Salt Lake's Community Coordination Team (CCT) is made up of one resident or business owner for each 13 blocks of construction, as well as two at-large members and two members representing the project's stakeholder agencies. The team is empowered to determine how $2.5 millon in city-enhancement funds should be spent along the rail-project corridor. They are also empowered to recommend the contractor's quarterly incentive fee. The CCT reviews the contractor's public-outreach performance quarterly to determine what percentage of a $200,000 bonus (of a possible project-long total of $1.4 million) the contractor will receive. Clearly, such measures might make contractors a bit more careful about where vehicles are parked. It could also give incentive to see that work was done quickly with minimum disruption to businesses. It might even lead them to adopt a policy similar to Portland's decision to keep one lane of traffic open at all times.

"We might have to close down a whole street for 10 minutes," says Mary Fetsch, director of communications at Portland's mass-transit system Tri-Met, noting that even when utilities have to be moved they can generally finish two blocks of construction in four to six weeks (as compared to the eight months projected for the westernmost stretch of Madison). "But every project is different. I don't know what they have found [digging up the street] in Memphis. [But] we've learned a lot. We now use a concrete that dries in an hour. And we make sure that driveways are never blocked."

"Portland is clearly a model that people look to," says MATA's Tom Fox, noting that the city's aggressive push to cut down on automotive travel has led them to implement some creative policies. And where Portland's rail construction is concerned, business viability is something Tri-Met feels they are in no position to determine.

"[Some construction has] been in marginal areas," Fetsch says. "Some businesses there don't even have good signage, so we go in with our technical expertise. We put up signs to let people know that businesses are open, and we get in and get out as quickly as possible." When one such business needed a new sidewalk, the project was completed overnight. "It cost us a little more," Fetsch says, "but our goal is to be good neighbors."

In addition to a good-neighbor policy that consists of creating signage and technical, marketing, and advertising assistance, Tri-Met has entered into a partnership with Portland Development Commission, U.S. Small Business Administration, Enterprise Foundation, Cascadia Revolving Fund, and Albina Community Bank to offer low-interest loans and technical assistance for small businesses in affected areas.

"No other city through time has been able to temper the inconvenience of major project builders," Sanford says, referring to the presumed lack of precedent for creating financial-assistance packages for small businesses hurt by trolley construction. "Maybe [Memphis] needs to get creative and figure out something. We want the businesses to survive. Maybe I'm not as smart as I thought I was, because I've not been able to figure out what to do."

Creativity and smarts aside, calling other cities with light-rail would be a good starting point.

Destination: The Future

If all goes according to plan, by 2020 Memphis will have a light-rail system extending from Millington in the north to Elvis Presley Boulevard in the south and east to Collierville. These rails will be serviced by modern, high-capacity trains rather than the antique streetcars of the Main Street Mall and riverfront loop. They will travel at the speed limit of the street or highway with which they align and in dedicated lanes unencumbered by automobile traffic. It is likely that they will also be given priority at traffic signals, increasing their efficiency.

The first phase of construction extends from downtown to the airport by one of four proposed routes through Midtown, with Madison representing the northernmost possibility and Lamar the southernmost. Priority was given to this area after a 1997 study showed that the combination of population density, density of population below the poverty level, density of business development, and potential for population and development growth made it the most favorable starting point. Proponents of light rail claim it will increase development and decrease traffic congestion and air pollution while giving Memphians a dependable alternative to driving. But the $20 million- to $40 million-per-mile cost even makes proponents wince. Those opposed to the project have said it's like buying a brand-new Ford Explorer for every citizen who uses the system.

Will light rail ever justify the cost? Both Tom Fox and Mike Eidlin, project manager for the consulting firm Parsons Brinckerhoff Quade & Douglas, Inc., which has been working with MATA to develop its light-rail system, say yes.

"[The Ford Explorer analogy] is a gross oversimplification," Eidlin says. "What the people who make these arguments fail to account for is that the operating cost for light rail is so much less expensive because of the capacity of the vehicles." In the long run, light rail may also be more cost-effective than continuing to add lanes to highways and buying additional buses to service them.

"We did a study in Cincinnati," says Eidlin, "comparing rail to highway alternatives and found that if you build a new lane onto a highway the capacity of that lane gets used up in something like eight years. Within 12 years the traffic on the roadway would be back on the original curve. You can't build your way out of traffic congestion." And, of course, with increasing lanes and increasing traffic congestion comes an exponential increase in air pollution, a situation that is troublesome not only to environmentalists but also for the local economy.

"The way the Environmental Protection Agency rates cities on air quality is that if you have two [points] over the limit it puts you into a non-attainment status," Fox explains. "Your ability to attract industries which may have air-quality conditions associated with them is [then] restricted. You've used up all the clean air that your region has, so it can have a significant impact on economic growth and development."

According to Fox, a lot of the air-quality problems in Memphis have been centered in an area around the Liberty Bowl, where an air monitor is located. Carbon dioxide levels become an increasing problem in cold weather, and when automobiles idle they put out more carbon dioxide. The Liberty Bowl game is always near the end of December and Fox says that event inevitably creates a glut of slow-moving traffic. "There were several years when we exceeded our EPA limit," he adds, "because of [Liberty Bowl] traffic setting off that monitor."

But does light rail actually do anything to significantly relieve traffic congestion or improve air quality? Transportation experts often apply a concept known as the "Convergence Theory." The premise of the theory is this: Traffic congestion is in and of itself a deterrent to increased traffic levels. In order to avoid traffic congestion, many motorists choose alternate travel routes or alter their departure schedule to avoid hours of peak congestion. When either another lane of traffic is built or light rail is installed, there is a brief period where congestion and air pollution drop. However, once word gets out that traffic congestion has dropped on a popular route, motorists then readjust to use the more efficient routes, bringing traffic congestion back to where it was in the first place. With no significant decrease in traffic congestion, there is no significant decrease in pollution.

Eidlin responds: "The only way we are going to deal with air-quality concerns nationally -- because there are no silver bullets out there and they aren't going to shut down all of the power plants -- is a little at a time. And I think it's pretty clear from some of the health studies out there that improving air quality in cities even in very small increments is beneficial.

"I do think light rail can improve congestion [and air quality], but that's only part of it. It's about providing alternatives to people who want those alternatives. You have a large group in Memphis which has no options. They don't drive cars. Secondly, if you offer the opportunity for people to get out of their cars, even if it's not on a daily basis, that has a beneficial impact."

"And one thing we really like," Fox adds, "is that people will use it for special events: Redbirds games, Grizzlies games, Tigers games. Even if you don't use it daily to go to work, you might use it 50 times a year to go to some event."

And what of the promises of increased development? Dallas has seen tremendous success in this area, as have Salt Lake City and Portland. The latter -- being more aggressive in its quest to alleviate traffic and pollution -- has created a number of incentives to encourage development, including tax abatements for businesses that open within walking distance of certain rail lines. But can the same things happen in Memphis? The South Main Arts District has begun to develop with the aid of monthly trolley tours, and residential development along the South Bluff is booming. But development along the mall has been slow.

"Other than the fact that the downtown trolley and the riverfront loop gave downtown a transportation spine, which in my mind unquestionably has been a benefit to development in the downtown area," says Sanford, "I don't think you can say business on Main Street, door-to-door, has improved because of the trolley. But I think the problem we are wrestling with here is that the viability of a business on Main or Madison is the function of the trolley, and I don't think that's the case. It's dangerous and very difficult to try to draw a straight line of cause and effect between the [success or] demise of a business because of one factor [like the trolley]. I feel pretty confident of that."

Though Fox believes light rail leads to development, he is in basic agreement with Sanford on this issue. "All of us agree that a rail line or a station by itself is not going to increase development," he says. "There needs to be a market there or other supportive policies in place to create or help encourage that market."

Summing up the issue of economic development, Eidlin says, "Developers believe -- and their investments follow their belief -- that a rail system demonstrates permanence." And nearly every city that has made an investment in light rail has found this to be true. But one big question remains: If we build light rail, will Memphians -- who are given to self-imposed racial and economic segregation and an unquestionable affinity for their automobiles -- use it?

"Well," Eidlin says, "Salt Lake City is full of pickup trucks with gun racks hanging in them. Nobody thought they would ride either. But Salt Lake City has seen tremendous success with its light rail, and I think Memphis will too."

End Of the Line

"When we look at people's travel [habits]," Eidlin says, "we find that not only do they value their minutes, they value predictability. On an average, your commute may be 15 minutes. But if there is an accident, you may be looking at 45 minutes. One of the things that happens when you introduce a light-rail system is that you increase the predictability of travel time. You could have an ice storm but you know the light rail is going to be there."

Light rail also gives riders personal time that driving takes away. Commute time might be spent reading the morning paper or brushing up on work materials before a morning meeting. For the user, it also eliminates the expense of parking. Clearly, light rail is a system that could be beneficial for Memphis. And much of the funding used to build the system will come from federal grants rather than from taxes. It's a win-win situation for everybody -- except for the business owners along Madison, who have become the unfortunate guinea pigs in this transit experiment. Given the controversy surrounding their problems, however, it's likely MATA will enter into the next phase of rail construction with better policies to mitigate the negative impact of rail construction.

And that may be the real price of progress.

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