August 14, 2020

On Overpasses and Politics

On Overpasses and Politics

Memphis, Texas is located in the panhandle on SH287.  The US Census estimated its 2019 population at just shy of 2,000, about half of what it was 50 years ago.  A major rail line runs along SH287 through Memphis.  FM1547 intersects SH287 and a BNSF rail line near the center of Memphis.  The Texas Department of Transportation (TXDOT) maintains a traffic counter on FM1547 near this intersection.  In 2019, it showed that about 575 drivers use this intersection daily.

In Houston, Richmond Avenue crosses the Terminal rail line about half a mile east of the West Loop.  Traffic counts show 27,000 to 37,000 drivers use this part of Richmond on a daily basis.

Here is what the rail line crossing in Memphis looks like.

Here is what the rail line crossing on Richmond Avenue looks like.

According to a local news story, the Memphis overpass had been on the drawing board since 2000.  It was completed by TXDOT in 2016 at a cost of $5 million.

For as long I can remember, local transportation planners have been discussing a grade separation of the Terminal rail line and Richmond Avenue.  The most recent study estimates the cost at $28 million.1

Granted, that would make the Richmond grade separation about six times more than what the Memphis grade separation cost.  But on the other hand, about 50 times the number of drivers use Richmond compared to Memphis’s FM1547.

I certainly do not begrudge the good people of Memphis their overpass, but a rational allocator of highway funds, utilizing a cost-benefit analysis, would have obviously built a grade separation on Richmond long before the one in Memphis.

So, how do such misallocations of highway funds occur?  Politics, of course.  North Texas has been reliably Republican for decades and rural areas of Texas tend to have longer-serving members in the Texas legislature.  When it comes to the legislative process, especially in the House, tenure is everything.  Memphis is located in House District 68.  It has had two representatives in the last 20 years.

John Godfrey Saxe, an American politician and writer, said, “laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.”2  Saxe was unquestionably accurate in his observation.  There is a sordid aspect to politics that turns off many and causes them to disengage.

But the reality is, elections have consequences.  So, the next time you are sitting in traffic on Richmond or Westheimer or San Felipe in traffic waiting on a train to pass, don’t complain unless you have engaged in the political process and certainly, at least, voted in the last election.  And perhaps you should consider voting for someone that will do something about mundane issues like grade separations and not just because of the letter behind their names on the ballot.


  1. Houston readers, of course, know that there are also at-grade crossings of the Terminal line at Westheimer and San Felipe as well as Richmond.  The traffic counts at all three are similar, but the cost of creating grade separations at Westheimer or San Felipe are significantly higher than Richmond.
  2. Some version of this quote is normally attributed German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck.  But according Quote Investigator Sake is the more likely original source.  BTW, Quote Investigator is a very cool website.  You will be amazed how many times you will discover a famous quote has been misattributed.
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