Behind the Headlines — May 23, 2014

Behind the Headlines — May 23, 2014


(female announcer)
This is a production of WKNO-Memphis. Production funding for
“Behind the Headlines” is made possible in part by.. Cars and buses and things
that go tonight on “Behind the Headlines.” [theme music]
♪♪♪ I’m Eric Barnes, publisher
of the Memphis Daily News. Thanks for joining us. We’re joined tonight by
three guests to talk about the transportation needs and the
present and future of the whole Memphis area. Introduce John Cameron,
city engineer for the city of Memphis. Thanks for having me on. Yeah, thank you for being here. Also, Pragati Srivastava,
the administrator — Memphis Metropolitan
Planning Organization. Thanks for being here. Yeah, thanks for the invitation. Absolutely. And Tom Fox, interim
general manager for MATA. Thanks for being here. Thank you. Glad to be here. So let me start with a
really big question. I’ll go left to right. You know Memphis and
the transportation needs, everything from buses to bike
lanes to sidewalks to striping. And you all have
a different part, some overlapping
parts in this whole mix. But if you could draw
the city or the region, let’s say, from scratch, how
would you do things differently? And I’ll start
with you, Pragati. It’s a massive area. Your organization covers
from parts of DeSoto County, Fayette, Tipton, Rhodes. I mean again, everything from
the biggest projects people see to the smallest. How would you do
things differently? Well it’s part of the M-P-O. We are a federally
mandated organization. So our presence is a law
dictated by what the regulations kind of require us to do. Our planning area is
actually Shelby County, Fayette County, DeSoto
County and Marshall County. So we don’t go in
to Tipton County. And in Arkansas, you know
they have their own West Memphis M-P-O. But we do
coordinate well with them. Transportation is, in
this area, pretty big. And it can be very challenging. But I think as we all
know with transportation, the best approach to look at
things is how do we combine the local needs up to
the regional level. Because nobody just
goes around their city. You know they travel
throughout the region. So I think the regional way to
look at the transportation makes sense. We’ll go to you, Tom. I was looking at your map
before we did the show today, the route map. I will admit that I’ve
never ridden a bus here. I did in other cities and
New York when I lived there — buses, subways and all that. I haven’t ridden a MATA bus. But I see them and I’m driving
next to them all the time. The route map is huge. You cover this massive area. So again, to that
big picture question, how would you do things
differently if you could draw this city or the transportation
infrastructure from scratch? What would you do differently? I think we’d actually like to
be covering more area than we do now. We’re essentially the city of
Memphis and maybe outside the city a little bit. But there are
definitely regional needs. It’s our vision that we would
expand to be a true regional transit agency and strengthen
our core services in the areas where people that don’t
have cars need a high level of service and then kind of expand
out to a different types of service for the areas that
people with cars and try to encourage them to use
public transportation instead of driving. And I got to imagine where the
biggest thing that stands in the way of that is money. And we’ll talk about
funding on all these fronts. But when it’s an
expensive proposition, just looking at that map and a
number of people you already serve, which is in
the millions every year. Right. Typically transit agencies over
20% or so of their costs from passenger fares. The rest has to come
from public agencies. And we get our money
from city of Memphis, state of Tennessee
and federal government. So for us to become regional,
we would need other partners to kind of
contribute to the funding. Yeah. We’ll come back to the kind of
funding questions and how that all works. We’ll get to you to
that big, kind of, almost silly
question I’ve asked. But how would you do
things differently? And again, you’re dealing with
everything down to the sidewalks and the curb specifications
and the big picture things of traffic lights and
roads and so on. Sure. I think one of our biggest
challenges is the sheer size of our region. Memphis, the city of Memphis
itself is 345 square miles. And we’re relatively
low-density population-wise. So providing transportation over
such a large footprint is really a challenge. Yeah. And when you talk
about that, the density, maybe coming back
to you, Pragati. That’s got to be a challenge. I mean a massive city from a
square mile point of view and region but not that dense. And so that’s where
people would maybe.. You get people
who would say, “Oh, well I wish we weren’t building
these highways and so on.” But there’s a lot of distance
between Collierville and Downtown Memphis. And there’s got to be
some way to connect those. How do you guys approach that? I mean the sheer size of it and
the relatively low density of the area. That has been kind of like a
continued challenge for us in this area. And you know I think the efforts
have been happening in the last few years with the, you know,
development in the core areas. And I think that has
been really encouraging, you know, especially for
us at the regional level. And I think that the biggest
challenge that I see with it being such a massive system is
the maintenance of the system. Because, you know, you do have
some capacity issues that we have to address. But then it also kind of boils
down to how do we maintain the system that we have. And let’s talk about funding
for a second in kind of general terms. But funding for
highway — I mean on-ramps, the big projects, say, at
240 and Sam Cooper right now. That funding comes from who? That funding —
It’s a state project. So it is managed by the
Tennessee Department of Transportation. And it has basically 80% or 90%
of the funding is coming from the federal government. And the match is provided
by the state of Tennessee. And not local money when a
project like that is happening. Generally, it is a
match by the state. By local, I meant
city or county. And another big
project, you know, the outer ring. I always think of it as
385 but maybe it’s 269. So I’m behind on the numbers. But yeah, that
whole project, again, at least part of it
under your auspices. And that funding comes from? Again, federal
government and state government, yes. And once you get.. Maybe I’ll turn to you. Once you get down to the city
level and the curbs and your putting in new street lights,
that money is almost entirely local money or
how does that work? Well it’s a mix. What a lot of people don’t
understand is a lot of the local streets, the subdivisions
are paid for by a private developers. So the smaller streets
are privately funded. You get in to some of the what
I call collectors and arterial roadways and those start to
become a city responsibility. And in some cases, they do
qualify for federal and state funds to help with those. Back to the dense
issue and transportation. I mean that’s tough. You talk about 20% in general
that public transportation systems are paid for by fares. You have to serve
this huge area. You guys listed it at 310 —
311 square miles that you’re covering. There’s only so many riders
every mile to pay for those buses. So how do you balance that? Well density is absolutely
key to the way we structure our services. The higher density areas
get more service obviously. And the lower density areas get
less service and even different types of service ideally. You’d like to have
maybe a more circulator, feeder routes in
the outlying areas. Park and ride in the outlying
areas where as in the inter and higher density areas, you have
buses running every 15 or 20 minutes. So you adapt your service
levels to the densities. And of course it’s not only
residential density but it’s also employment density, too. Because there are a lot of jobs
that are in locations that are difficult to serve or
expensive to serve. But they still need
some kind of service. There’s a.. I don’t know if you saw. There’s a great study — and
people can look up in the New York Times, if they’re
in to this sort of thing. But it was on economic
mobility in the United States. And they found that it was
Atlanta that was the least economically mobile city. The theory being that
the way Atlanta’s set up, a lot of the people at the poor
end are so far removed from the jobs coming back to what you
just said and that they don’t have.. And we think of, you
know, if you’re in Memphis, you think Atlanta as being a
very big and successful and incredibly prosperous city. But the mobility there,
according to this study was so low in large part because there
was poor public transit from the poorer areas of town to the
wealthier areas where the jobs are. I guess we have some
of that same dynamic. And it’s kind of an
American dynamic. It’s a very common
dynamic across the country. And do you work with employers? I mean switching to
kind of the employment. Do they come to
you saying, “Hey, can you please help me
ge workers to my area?” I mean how responsive
are you able to be? We constantly try to reach out
to employers whenever we can. And were also talking lately
about transportation management associations, which would be
groups of employers banding together to provide some kind
of service as to supplement what MATA can provide. But we’re always willing
to work with employers. We try to promote passes. Employers can buy passes for
employees and that would help to fray the costs. But it usually comes back down
to if we’re going to expand service, how is that
service going to be paid for? Is the new money coming in or
is it some service that’s gonna have to be moved from
some other location? Yeah. And are you
involved with the hop-on? People, at least
in the Downtown.. Is that kind of what
you’re talking about with these transportations? Or is that totally
separate from MATA? Well there’s definitely.. That’s a private sector
initiative which certainly fits in to help fill the gaps on some
of the things that MATA is not really set up to do. So that’s a good example of
these transportation management associations. It would be another example of
private sectors coming in to supplement. Right, right. I mean, switch to you in terms
of businesses and some of what we think about with the roads
or people going to the store, people going to school. To what extent do you have to
be responsive to the business community in thinking about
how roads and infrastructure and transportation and
so on are set up? Absolutely. Memphis is a transportation hub. We had a lot of
logistics located in Memphis. You go FedEx. A lot of large trucking
companies are located here. We have really five major
railroads that all come in to Memphis. So transportation
and for employment, transportation for freight are
all considerations that we have to think about when we’re
developing our plans for improvements and roadway
and transportation network. And I don’t know where
your area of authority ends. Just geographically when you get
down in to the airport district and the warehouse
district, all that. But there’s been talk. And this may be as much a
question for you about trying to improve that area. It’s kind of crazy when
you drive through there, if you’re just doing it
even because you’re driving to Birmingham or you’re
driving to Atlanta. And it’s in one of
the busiest, most, you know, commercially
active trucking areas. And you’ve got a
stop light every three. Is that in the city of Memphis? So that’s on you all? That is in the city of Memphis. Let me interrupt
you just a second. We’re talking about that
area of kind of Lamar, 78, once you get down and you’re
getting close to the Mississippi border. And it is just kind of crazy
when you’re driving around there that there isn’t a better
connector for the trucks, let alone the tourists or
the people just trying to do business throughout there. Absolutely. And you’ve probably heard of
the aerotropolis initiative. That area is a focus area
for transportation issues. And we’ve had some
pretty good success. We actually have, in the state
of Tennessee working with the federal government, are going
to be starting some projects on Lamer avenue to improve
transportation in that area. Yeah, your
thoughts on that area? I mean it must be
maddening to you as a planner, you know, that it’s back to my
opening question — one thing you’d do differently. I would imagine that corridor,
you’d love to wipe that clean and not the people but the way
the transportation works in that area. Right. And that’s like a big, you
know, transportation hub, you know, freight hub
and part of the city. And yeah, I would. We have been working with
the state to get that fixed. And unfortunately, the
cost is really high. But you know it’s going
to be done in pieces. But we are moving
forward with that. Is that the kind of thing where
you really need the wallet of the federal government to
make something like that really happen? Or does the state have
money to do it overtime? It’s probably, you know, just
because the connection that it has with the airport as well as
the connection to Birmingham, Alabama, as well as Mississippi,
I think this is definitely where we, you know.. The more federal
funds we can get, I think that
would be beneficial. Yeah, yeah. And unfortunately right now, you
know the current transportation bill is expiring in September. So we are right now kind of
waiting to see if it’s going to be extension or not. But you know they’re
kind of bumps in way. Not to put you in an
uncomfortable position but how much does.. You’re very dependent on
that federal money even if it’s flowing through the state. And the way congress works right
now is so — some would call it dysfunctional. And you don’t. I mean you’re trying to
plan for the long term. I mean looking at your website,
you’ve got plans out to 2014. But you don’t know exactly how
you’re funding’s gonna work in the short term. That has to be maddening. It is. And we, you know, the best thing
that we do at this point is kind of work with our state
partners both on Tennessee and Mississippi side and, you know,
make sure that the projects we have in the pipeline are moving
forward and they’re not, you know, affected by this issue
that we are dealing with right now. And we talked a little
bit before the show. Just your area of, you know,
kind of authority doesn’t extend to the railroads but you
work closely with them. And it does not extend there. Obviously you’re trying to
help connections to and from the airports. Yeah, absolutely because most of
the freight traffic that we have in that area, it’s almost like
close to like truck traffic. So even though the trucks are
coming in and out of the yard at the port authority area as
well as the airport area, there’s a lot of
truck traffic happening. So that is directly
affecting, you know, the operations of the highways
as well as neighborhoods and things of that nature. So yes, we do work
very closely with them. We have a freight advisor
committee which kind of, you know, deals with these kinds
of issues and works with our freight partners. And your group is, again,
because it’s mandated by the federal government
and this broad area. So you’ve got lots
of different mayors, different counties,
Mississippi, different states. Does everyone work nice and get
along or is it kind of tense? Is everyone on the same page? Because the
companies maybe don’t care. They might be located in DeSoto
County but they’re using the Memphis airport and a train-rail
place in Fayette County. The companies maybe sometimes
don’t care but politicians do. How do you manage that? Well that’s always challenging. But I think, you
know, regionalism is, you know, is the way. Like you said, you know, the
companies can not see things. So they don’t necessarily like
follow like the state boundary or the county or
the city boundary. And we work well
with our board members, which includes all the mayors
and supervisors and all these members from the area and kind
of work through the process of, you know, as well as the state
D-O-Ts to get some of these initiatives implemented and
try to build a consensus on different issues. Yeah. Let’s go from the big trucks and
all that down to the bike lanes. I mean it’s one of the
most visible changes from a transportation
point of view, I think, in the last years in Memphis. And you know famously Memphis
was constantly named the least bike friendly city. I don’t know where we rank now
but it’s got to be quite a bit higher. That’s also in part
under your auspices. So talk about that initiative
and the successes and failures or learning or, you know, things
you’ve learned in terms of putting those bike lanes
and bike paths and so on in. I would say it kind
of started in 2009, you know, when we had the
Shelby Farms Green Line open. And that was, I think, the
success of that particular project. It was funded through
the M-P-O, you know, through the federal funds that
came through our organization. And I think that was a big
catalyst from getting things going. And I think what we
are seeing right now, you know.. Our process is very technical
and its very data oriented. So we have to kind of check with
the citizens and find out how things are going and what the
changed in demographics are there and things of that nature. What we are seeing is people are
people are really looking for options, you know, how we can
best provide those options to them, I think. And putting these
bike lanes, you know, I think has been
working out well. There’s still a long ways to go. But, you know, from Memphis all
the way to Collierville all the way to Fayette County,
there are bikers everywhere. And you know now because of
these facilities we have, you know, we see them on the
roads using it quite often. And there are more
bike lanes going in. The project was not.. No, we have a long way to go. Okay. And that also gets to you. Just even looking
at your website, you have design guidelines
and all these kind of.. That’s a new phenomenon within
the city engineers office. Right. The past three of four years,
we’ve really put an emphasis on it with the
leadership of the mayor. But from the
transportation perspective, we’re looking at
multi-modal transportation. Things like bike transportation
helps extend the range of the bus routes. The bus routes may
not be able to cover, get close to everybody. But with a bicycle, if you live
within a mile of a bus route, you can get there relatively
easy and take your bike with you. So we’re putting an emphasis on
multi-modal transportation to help close this economic gap
for folks who may not have an automobile in their household
and may only have one automobile in their household to
provide them options. Yeah. And I guess that is different. I mean some of what, you know,
you think about with the bikes and Green Line, which is
recreational or sport or however you want to turn that. The connection that’s
going in to Overton Park. But I haven’t really thought
about it is an alternative. Although actually, I see people. I’m driving my care but I see
people riding their bikes to work downtown and so on. And so I guess that’s part of
what you’re talking about with these strategies. We’re providing more options,
providing opportunities for people to have other
ways of getting around. Yeah, yeah. And you all.. I see the bikes on
the front of the buses. And that’s been successful? It has. We’re up in to the
thousands of bikes per month. All of our buses
have bike racks. All of our transit
centers have bike racks. I believe we see this as a
really nice compliment to what we do. And those ran. And I think you got
some, probably in hindsight, unfair criticism,
probably from the media, that you guys became bike
friendly before a lot of the bike paths were in. And so I guess sometimes maybe
that’s the struggle with all these transportation issues is
it’s a chicken and egg thing where you just start. So you all maybe had
funding or whatever, an idea to make the buses
bike friendly and carry them. But there were no
lanes for them. You did it anyway. People were using
the bike racks. We’ve had them for
seven or eight years. But now with the increased
exposure and emphasis on bike lanes, that’s one
of the numbers. The usage has just
gone through the roof. Yeah. Talk a little bit
about the connector. Because it’s a little bit
different if I understand correctly. And we’re getting in to the
weeds of engineering here. But why not? The connector between Overton
Park and what’s call the Hamp Line, Broad avenue — It’s a
different kind of bike lane than has ever been put in in Memphis. Am I right about that? That’s correct. We’ve been part of what’s
been called the Green Lanes initiative over the
last couple of years. And as we’ve started
putting in bike lanes, we’ve been learning and we’ve
been looking at what the next step is in bike lanes. What we’re tryin to do is make
bicycle lanes more accessible, more comfortable for
more people to use, and so one of the… One of the strategies you can
use is to put in what’s called a buffered bike lane where you
separate the bike lane somehow either physically or maybe
as simple as putting in some striping for a three to four
foot buffer between the bicycles and the moving traffic. So the, what’s called the Hamp
line which is going to connect the Greenline to Overton Park
is gonna — is being designed in that manner where the bicyclists
will be more separated from the moving traffic make it more
comfortable for bicyclists particularly those bicyclists
who may be using the Greenline to continue on to Overton Park. Yeah, yeah. Talk about the from Overton Park
the there’s also work to get across the Harahan
Bridge to Arkansas. We’ve talked about that before. Did that come through your group
or is everybody a little bit a part of that in terms of
implementing the — in this is the connector from West Memphis
all the way to the Ghost River ultimately right? I mean a way out
in Fayette County? So from West Memphis all the way
out to North Parkway and even beyond and downtown, the Main
to Main Project will be building bicycle and
pedestrian connections. That funding came through a
federal tiger grant so that it is a lot of
federal funds in that, 15-million in federal funds but
then just a whole consortium of local and private funds going in
to it and we had real good success working with
private parties on some of these initiatives. And then that also does um
improvements of the streets downtown. Is that right? And even to the tracks for the
trolley it begins to bleed into that. Yes, there’s a component of
upgrades to the trolley tracks on South Main. Because that does get to.. I mean people talk
about, um, ya know, pot holes and the condition of
the roads downtown right now is, is really pretty bad. I mean I should be more
objective but I drive downtown every day. Will some of this money be put
towards cleaning up the roads down there? And maybe I’ll put you on
the spot and terms of that. We had Kemp Conrad from the
city council on before that. I mean, he says and he’s a
real critic of city spending but he says that we just
don’t spend enough on roads. I mean he .. I’m paraphrasing. He’ll probably call me and
tell me that I got it wrong. But paraphrasing him we got to
do better and it takes money and so on to.. So what about the state of the
roads downtown and throughout the city, potholes and so on? Certainly it takes investment. And this goes back to how spread
out we are and how much — how many lane-miles of road we
need to cover our area and the density that we have. So it, it’s hard to sustain the
number of miles of roads that we have and keep them paved
and adequately repaired. We have ,a, over the last
several years with the recession had some budget cuts
which have impacted that. Um, we’ve been able to
leverage some federal money, some surface transportation
program funds to help us do some paving projects and in fact a
lot of the stimulus program funds went toward repaving. Yeah, yeah. Also you are implementing the
new parking meters the new paid ones. They’re, um, put the ticket… I mean it’s been
implemented for the last what, three or four months. Right, Right, since
the first of the year. How is that going? I mean part… The promise was in part to
raise some money for the city, I assume or at least.. Because people weren’t just
using the coin op ones as much as they should have. How is it going? So, the whole parking program
is put in place to manage the parking downtown. We have basically meters in area
where we want the parking space to turn over. Folks coming into have lunch
or do business down the Civic Center can have a short
term parking on street. So the strategy is to put in
meters that allow for up to two hours of parking and let that
space turn over over two hours. So, with the new meters we put
in the capability of accepting credit cards and debit cards
which has really proved to be convenient and made it easier
for folks to be able pay for parking. Right, do you have
financial results yet on that? I mean is it meeting goals? Is it too early to tell in terms
of the revenue that comes in from that? It’s pretty early but
it’s meeting goals. And the initial goal is to make
sure that we are paying for the new equipment out of the
increased revenues so that there is no burden to the tax payer. It’s the users. And your office put those up
and maintains them but it’s the police who make sure
they’re enforced. Is that right? It’s enforced by the police
but we also do have parking enforcement technicians housed
within the engineering division. They are very vigilant. I can just say that as someone
who works downtown and has worked downtown for a long time
and it has been a change and just doing my part to um fund
the city in the meters as we go. Which also leads us to your,
your office puts up the traffic cameras the
intersection traffic cameras. Is that correct? And there are more
of those going in? These are the video cameras the
automatic ones that catch people going through a red
light, or a yellow light. We don’t actually put
those up, but we… Okay, excuse me. We coordinate with the
police and their vender. They have a vender that puts
them up and maintains them. So we work with them on
identifying those locations where there high
accident locations. Those are also very effective. I’ll just go
ahead and say that. I have found those
to be very good. And for you.. Just a minute or so left. You tweaked in the
last six months, a year, how-ever many months
tweaking the routs for MATA. Is there more? There’s some experimenting
with express busses. What’s next? And kind of new and different
routes and express busses or other? Well we’re implementing a plan
we that we had prepared about two years ago. We have been kind of
doing it in phases. And by the end of this year
we should have all the major elements of the
plan implemented. Now some of the outlying areas
will still be working on park and rides and
those kinds of things. One of the projects that we’ve
done we’ve worked with John’s group on is signal priority. We have all of our busses
equipped to be able to recognize equipment at traffic signals
to keep lights green longer to speed up the busses. We have it on Poplar Avenue and
we have it in portions of Elvis Presley Boulevard. It’s been great. We’ve actually demonstrated
twenty percent travel time savings on those two or three
corridors and we’d love to be able to expand that. Just quick last question. The federal money to retime all
the lights to keep the traffic flowing better. We didn’t get that grant. Are we trying again? Does that go through you? Actually we do have
a project in place. We have a hundred-some
miles of corroders that we’re coordinating. Most recently Walnut Grove Road. All right. Awesome. Thank you. Thank you all three for
being for being here. Thank you for joining us. Join us again next week. Good night. [theme music]
♪♪♪ CLOSED CAPTIONING
BY WKNO-MEMPHIS.

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