On Track? 

It may take years, but Memphis is destined to become a light-rail city.

Anyone who's traveled in Europe -- or in most major American cities -- has probably enjoyed the benefits of a fine public transportation system.

Clean, on time, and moderately priced, light-rail and subway systems bring a certain refinement to rush hour. Rather than fight traffic, commuters of all social strata are able to sit back, relax, read the newspaper, and get ready for their day.

Still, in Memphis, as in most of America, most people use a personal automobile to get around. With the federal government seemingly willing to do whatever it takes to keep gas prices low, and funding 80 percent of local road projects, it's no wonder we're so auto-centric.

But traffic congestion is getting worse every year, and city and state planners say road-building simply cannot keep up with the rising flood of traffic. They are increasingly looking towards improving the rail system to reduce traffic and pollution, save lives, and, in the long run, money.

"If we look at what it costs to improve the interstate -- to fix existing structures and build new roads -- compared to the light-rail system, light rail is cheaper and easier to maintain in the long run," says Carter Gray, metropolitan planning coordinator for Memphis' Office of Planning and Development. "I-240 is out to eight lanes in some places, and after that we have nowhere else to go."

The Memphis Area Transit Authority has been working for a number of months on expanding the downtown trolley line down Madison Avenue to Cleveland. The $74 million project will connect downtown and the Medical District.

That trolley line will eventually be part of a larger, faster, and more modern regional light-rail system. Three lines will serve the area's fastest-growing regions: south to the airport and north Mississippi, east to Collierville, and north to Millington.

The Medical District trolley line is slated to open in March 2004, and MATA is planning for the first line of the light-rail system (from Madison to the airport) to be open by 2009. Two routes for the line are being considered: one would run from Madison, down Cleveland to Lamar, to Airways; the other would run from Madison down Cooper, across Young, to Airways.

The route along Lamar could spur development in a poverty-stricken area, says Albert Crawford, president of the Airways-Lamar Business Association. The University of Memphis economics department has developed a study on how many of the existing structures could be used for high-density office, residential, and commercial space. Crawford says such development would bring hope and opportunities to a declining part of town.

But while some are excited about the prospect of a light-rail line through their neighborhood, many businesses along the Madison trolley corridor have suffered during its construction.

Richard Alley, owner of the Tobacco Bowl, says MATA has not kept businesses along Madison informed about its progress and has broken many promises about the construction timetable. During ten months of construction, Alley says, the workers often abandoned the job-site for up to a month at a time.

Even so, Alley says his confidence in MATA's ability to build a regional rail system hasn't been shaken.

"I'm excited about the trolley extension. I never thought it was a bad idea," Alley says. "And the regional rail system is very necessary. They just need to plan a little better. They learned as they go along. We were their practice case."

Tom Fox, MATA's director of planning and capital projects, agrees that MATA learned a lot from the Madison extension and says it will do better in the future in keeping construction on track and business owners informed. He also says that the light-rail plans remain very open; if a neighborhood doesn't want it, MATA has other options.

Many cities use abandoned railroad lines for their light-rail routes, but as one of the nation's largest shipping centers, Memphis' rail lines are still used for freight. Gray says a new billion-dollar rail center is being planned that would reroute the city's five major rail lines to southwest Memphis. The new rail-yard could free up the city's rail lines for passenger traffic and keep roads from being obstructed by trains.

Tennessee transportation officials are also trying to encourage shippers to use railroads rather than trucks. In some areas trucks account for 20 to 30 percent of all traffic, wasting fuel and endangering passenger cars, says Ben Smith, a planner with the Tennessee Department of Transportation. It will be expensive to update the state's rail system, but Smith says railroads are easier to maintain than roads and can carry many times more freight for less money.

TDOT officials also want to put more resources into developing passenger trains across Tennessee. Many neighboring states are updating their passenger rail systems, Smith says, making it easier to link to other state and regional rail systems.

Future Perfect?

It's a Monday morning in 2020. In Collierville, a couple parks their automobile at a light-rail station and boards the clean, comfortable, 90-foot car for the 20-minute ride to their downtown offices. They are two of 10,000 citizens projected to ride the train every day, according to a planning report.

Development has flourished along the light-rail route, providing new housing and businesses for depressed neighborhoods, while saving the county $500 million in school building costs. The city's scattered and sprawling development patterns of the 1990s have been redirected toward the rail lines through land-use regulations and infrastructure investment strategies.

Many thought Memphians would never park their cars, but with farsighted thinking and planning the city has cured its sprawl problem and become a cleaner, more livable place.

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