Tuesday, July 22, 2008


A few months ago, local governments were planning to add hybrid vehicles to their fleets. Memphis was going to buy 10, Shelby County and Collierville were going to get four each, and Bartlett was going to get two.

But that was before a budget snafu and a reduction in federal funding for clean air projects.

“There was money taken out for the [FedExForum] garage incident. That was the beginning of the problem,” says Larry Smith, supervisor of the local health department’s air quality improvement branch. “In addition to that, the state reduced the allocation given to the local area.”

To fund its upcoming projects, the Health Department reallocated money from its RideShare program, but other agencies weren’t as lucky. Funding for a new MATA transit center near the airport was eliminated.

“We generally get about $3.2 million” each year in Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality money, says Martha Lott, administrator for the local Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO).

“In 2000, we got $1.9 million. In 2008, we got $1.6 million, and they’re telling me for 2009, 2010, and 2011 to project about $200,000 less each year,” she says.

The funding, known under the acronym CMAQ, is federal gas tax money that is disbursed to the state and then spent in areas that don’t meet clean air standards in ozone, carbon monoxide, and particulate matter.

Though the state said it would recoup more than $6 million in funding in late 2006 because of money misused for an intermodal bus transfer facility at the Forum, that money was not transferred until May of last year. Lott says she was not notified when the money was transferred.

In previous years, the state has given about 80 percent of CMAQ funding to the state’s various MPOs. This year the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) used 86 percent of the $28 million in this year’s CMAQ funding.

Alan Jones, advisor for TDOT’s environmental policy office, says one of the department’s priorities was intelligent transportation systems — which include cameras and electronic message boards — in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga.

“We have not started Chattanooga’s system yet,” Jones says. “Of the $28 million, $23 million is dedicated to starting Chattanooga’s system. None of the other MPOs had to spend their money on that.”

However, Jones says he hopes to see more funding given to MPOs in future years.

“The MPOs are uniquely qualified to understand their region and what might be the best projects,” Jones says. “Having this hybrid of the state department of transportation looking at priorities established by Congress or by the administration, we need the ability to send at least part of the money to MPOs to make their own decisions.”

Jones could not comment on the FedExForum garage because of an ongoing Tennessee Bureau of Investigation inquiry.

[Note: This story was supposed to run in this week's Flyer, but because all my colleagues had to go and do good work and get awards and everything, it got the ax. Which is probably just as well.]

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