For a generation, the proposed highway through Shelby Farms Park has been political quicksand that trapped county mayor after county mayor. Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton – with the considerable help of Tennessee Department of Transportation Commissioner Gerald Nicely – not only has escaped the trap, but he can now claim credit for the process that produced a solution that the entire county can embrace.
It seemed an unlikely outcome in February when Mayor Wharton launched yet another process to search for answers to the long-standing question of where and how the highway should be situated in Shelby Farms Park. And yet, the 17 people whom he appointed have hashed out their differences and found a road alignment and design that would resolve the 20-year battle between park lovers and development interests.
For the first time in the history of this controversial project, the committee appointed to look into this question was actually balanced with equal attention given to environmentalists, the public and development industry representatives. For the first time, it was not environmental interests that were grumbling about the process. Rather, the grumbling has come from developers who complained that the committee too quickly dispatched the design they had championed for years – a six-lane, high-speed highway just west of Patriot Lake.
The committee’s compromise proposal – which appears to give park lovers more than they gave up in the process – is a major achievement for the Wharton Administration as it looks for achievements to spotlight in campaign brochures for next year’s election.
To get an idea of the significance of this recommendation, just consider that there are children who entered kindergarten and have graduated from college and never remember a time when there was not a divisive dispute about the design and alignment of Kirby-Whitten Parkway Connector Road through Shelby Farms Park.
Conventional wisdom said that the battle lines were immutable. Yet new attitudes by Tennessee Department of Transportation, the Wharton Administration and Friends of Shelby County Park came together to create a new dynamic that gave birth to a “context sensitive solutions (CSS)” process that produced the new road recommendations.
Endorsing the use of this CSS approach for the first time in Shelby County, TDOT sent the strong message that road-building in Tennessee has fundamentally changed under the direction of Commissioner Nicely, the first non-roadbuilder to head up the department in recent memory. Instead of building roads, Nicely’s reputation was made as an advocate for public-private partnerships that revitalized downtown Nashville. His philosophy has predictably met with some bureaucratic foot-dragging, but slowly and surely, he has forced TDOT to see its constituency as more than the politicaly powerful road-building industry.
With this encouragement, Mayor Wharton appointed the special advisory committee that has now recommended a gently curving, four-lane highway that snuggles against the western border of Shelby Farms Park as much as possible. The shift westward – removing once and for all the intrusive wider, faster highway near the heart of the parkland – was the first indication that this time around, things would be different. When the road was reduced from a six lanes to four lanes and the speed limit set at 40 to 45 miles an hour, the hand writing was on the wall.
The entire process has been a stunning victory for environmental interests, which did not get everything they wanted but found room for compromises they could live with. Some “no roaders” remain unconvinced, but their number has dwindled as environmentalists stuck with the process and ended up winning most of the major issues.
Major credit goes to Friends of Shelby Farms Park, which shifted from a recalcitrant position opposed to any road to becoming a source of influence for a site-sensitive design. A key decision by the group was the hiring of nationally prominent engineer Walter Kulash, who evaluated every planned alignment and provided convincing evidence of why the six-lane, high speed highway with massive interchanges (proposed as recently as three years ago by county government) was simply unnecessary and would devastate the park.
The Context Sensitive Solutions process has been slow to get to Memphis. It’s been used for years by traffic engineers across the U.S. as they balanced the transportation needs and environmental needs of their regions. In recommending this process to city and county governments early this year, Friends of Shelby Farms Park cited a list of benefits that included the following:
• CSS meets traffic needs.
• CSS reflects a sense of place and fits in physically and visually with the community’s environmental, scenic, historic and natural resources.
• CSS involves and engages a range of stakeholders, forging cooperation and buy-in.
• CSS exceeds the expectations of everyone by elevating the quality of the solution.
• CSS minimizes controversy and divisiveness in the community.
• CSS adds lasting value and beauty to the community.
• CSS emphasizes open, honest, early and continuous communication.
• CSS involves a multidisciplinary team and the public.
• CSS reflects community values and an openness to ideas.
• CSS considers a full range of innovative alternatives for transportation, including walking, biking, light rail, etc.
It appears that the rhetoric of the endorsement has been fulfilled in the reality of its use. The road through Shelby Farms Park has been on local governments’ transportation plans for 36 years. What’s been missing during that time has been a single, simple element – sensitivity to the impact of the highway on the 4,500-acre park.
In the end, injecting this balanced approach into transportation decisions – for too long the province of development interests and government engineers – may be a legacy contributed by Shelby Farms Park that’s almost as important as its recreational assets.
There remains 24 to 27 new lanes of roads pointed directly at Shelby Farms Park and still on our community’s transportation plans, and it would be tragic if each of them results in the protracted, divisive debate that has characterized the Kirby-Whitten Parkway.
If the Metropolitan Planning Organization (chaired by Mayor Wharton) is smart, it would use this occasion to take more definitive action to ensure that the Context Sensitive Solutions process is not a one-time experiment, but a policy for every highway built in our community.
That’s an outcome that would make this committee’s recommendation more than copy for a campaign brochure, but a chapter for the history books.