Outrageous Outrage — or We Get What We Deserve

riverside-drive-medOn July 29, 2014, the City of Memphis held a public meeting at Beale Street Landing to make a presentation and receive comments about the ongoing pilot project making half of Riverside Drive a pedestrian and bicycle only path and the future use of the roadway.

About 45 people were in the audience for the meeting and many repeatedly expressed, in sometimes caustic terms, a frustration because they felt the city proceeded with the pilot project first without an opportunity for public input, taking them by surprise.

The apparent opponents of both the pilot project and any plans to continue the narrowed use of the street by motor vehicles seemed to outnumber those who voiced support. There were a number of complaints regarding safety of those driving cars and trucks on the now two lanes open to motor vehicles, about traffic congestion, about actual use of the part of the road now reserved for pedestrians and bicycles. This report is not to diminish any validity such complains may or may not have nor does it favor one proposal over another, including returning the road to its former four lane motor vehicle use or keeping its use divided.

In answer to one person asking why the city did not hold such public meeting before closing one side of the road for the pilot project, City Engineer John Cameron noted that it is often difficult to get people to attend any such meeting until something is actually done, like this pilot project, that gets the public’s attention. He had also let the people know that this was one of the top fast-track proposals endorsed by consultant Jeff Speck and outlined in a public meeting more than a year ago.

This frequent observer of public meetings believes Cameron was telling a sad truth. The public usually does not make itself aware of what its government is doing or plans to do and often does not actively participate until something happens. Then those who make their voices heard are typically those who do not like what has been done.

More to the point addressing the complaints of those who said they did not know about the plan to close one side of Riverside Drive until it happened was that the city’s announced plans for the pilot project implementation got major play by the news media, including by The Commercial Appeal on March 8, was also outlined in the Memphis Daily News April 22, the Memphis Business Journal March 10, WMC-TV March 11, and WHBQ-TV March 11. The southbound lanes of Riverside Drive were closed for much of May, as usual for the Memphis in May festival, and the pilot project keeping those lanes closed to motor vehicles ensued after that. This time line means the public got more than two months to voice whatever comments it had about the plans before the city actually began the project.   The city council meets about twice a month and a member of the public may request to speak on any subject, the matter does not have to be on the agenda. Letters, phone calls, and e-mail messages could have been directed to council members, the mayor, the city engineer, and others. If people do not take the time and effort to try to stay informed and then participate in our self- government, it tends to make them look less than diligent when they later complain about not having had an opportunity for input.

There were one or two comments at the July 29 meeting that messages left with the city were not returned. Cameron said he was disappointed to hear that, leaving the impression that if his office gets legitimate communications from the public he expects it to respond.

Certainly the comments at the late July gathering, including those that were seemingly tinged with animosity, are valuable feedback to the city about what some of the residents think and Cameron promised to take the suggestions under consideration. It is rarely too late for the public to tell its government what it wants. It is good that the opponents, as well as those favoring the reassignment of Riverside Drive, were at the July 29 meeting. It is a shame that less than 50, excluding the media, city officials, and Beale Street Landing employees, chose to attend. Regardless, as they would probably admit and as their questions clearly implied, there could be better timing for comments for those who opposed any change to Riverside Drive and it would seem that the months between the announcement of the plan and its implementation would have been that better time.

The outrage expressed by some of the public about not having a reasonable opportunity to address the issue with the city seemed, for the most part, to be outrageous. Since this was not a major concrete and earth moving project requiring a long term advance commitment, it could be argued there was a significant amount of time and opportunity for the public to express itself.

If residents of a city do not inform themselves and take part in their self-government, then it could be said they deserve what they get, whether they like it or not.

Although there may well be times for outrage, it would seem obvious that it might be worthwhile for all of us to devote a little more, or perhaps much more, time to learning what our various levels of government are doing, then to express our opinion to our elected and appointed officials, preferably in a timely and courteous manner, not after-the-fact and with animosity because we did not, in fact, inform ourselves and make our voices heard earlier.

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Are train “whistles” too loud, too often, too much?

train-crossingShelby County Historian Jimmy Ogle in speaking about the inconveniences to motorists imposed by the rail line along the Southern and Poplar Avenues corridor, has said “it’s not in our way, we’re in its way.”

He is pointing out that the rail line was there before the city grew around it. It became operational as the Memphis and Charleston Railroad in 1857.

You do not have to live next to a railroad to feel the vibration and hear the rumble of the trains or, especially, to experience the piercing sound of the train horn. The old train whistle, while certainly loud, has given way to what is more aptly described as a horn. This writer lives more than a mile away from any railroad track, but often hears the horns quite distinctly even inside with doors and windows closed.

There are plenty of train horns in Memphis. The city is only one of three in the United States that is served by all five Class I railroads, as befits America’s Distribution Center, which is what the city promoted itself as for many years. Along with the positive economic impact of that comes some inconveniences, one of which is the noise.

The city has contracted for a study to determine if there are any areas along the Norfolk Southern line, which runs along the Southern and Poplar Avenues corridor, that qualify to become quiet zones. If any such areas are selected and the option implemented, it will not change the rumble and vibration from the trains, but it might well quiet the horns.

Federal regulations require trains to sound horns at least four times as they approach an intersection with a roadway. In a quiet zone, however, that requirement is suspended unless safety or other compelling reasons require the use of the horn. A quiet zone has to be at least one-half mile long and can encompass several intersections.

To become a quiet zone several criteria must be met, including efforts to mitigate any increased risk there might be to street traffic from the trains not using horns as they approach the intersections. Typically there is some cost to upgrade existing equipment that restricts street traffic from approaching the rails when a train is near.

The study will look at the 23 at grade street crossings along that Norfolk Southern railway corridor to see which area of three or four crossings that would provide the most benefit as a quiet zone. The study involves $22,376.10 in private funding from Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare and $11,448.90 in city public funds. Parsons Transportation Group Incorporated, an international technical, engineering, construction, and management support firm with its principal office in California, but with an office in Memphis, is conducting the study for the city in cooperation with the University of Memphis, which conducted a similar study in recent years.. The council accepted the private funds in a vote March 28, 2014, and according to city engineer John Cameron the public funding had already been approved.

The study is to be completed and submitted to the city by the end of the year 2014.