If the Tennessee Department of Transportation had set out to intentionally fumble the process for construction of the $60 million I-55/Crump Boulevard interchange project, it could not have done it any better.
TDOT says that after considering all the options, the Memphis-Arkansas Bridge needs to be closed for nine months in 2017 to complete the new interchange. Its assurances are of course cold comfort since it’s hard for most of us to think of a project in which TDOT met its announced schedule, and sometimes its construction schedule is off by more than a year.
To win converts to the plan, TDOT Commissioner John Schroer has said that the option would not have required the closing of the bridge but it would take five years to complete. It sounds suspiciously hyperbolic, a conclusion encouraged by the fact that TDOT has been anything but a model of transparency in releasing information.
According to TDOT, construction would begin in spring, 2016, and the bridge would close, beginning in spring, 2017. In other words, it’s for the commissioner to state emphatically that the plan is the best when he’s 210 miles away in Nashville.
Hoping There’s No Emergencies
The I-55 bridge is handling more than twice the traffic that it was built to handle and three times more trucks, and TDOT officials contend that the Hernando de Soto Bridge (I-40) can handle the about 45,000 additional cars every day, which conjures up images of tens of thousands of cars and trucks driving through downtown streets to move from a closed I-55 bridge to access to the I-40 bridge.
Arkansas officials predict that “choke points” will develop on both sides of the bridge. We’ve not seen any accident figures for the I-40 bridge, but the hours of backed up traffic that occur for even fender benders is enough to provoke apocalyptic images if there’s a serious accident on the I-40 bridge with tens of thousands of additional vehicles every day.
Speaking of accidents, it’s worth remembering that emergency care would be problematic now that West Memphis has lost its hospital.
Here’s the thing: any doubts about the wisdom of the TDOT recommendation have been magnified by its inept presentations, its refusal to release data on alternate scenarios, and the lack of an economic impact study for the bridge closing.
In the end, TDOT seems oblivious to how little traction its “trust me” attitude has in Memphis, and faced with the opportunity to be open and to open its entire files, it’s been slow to understand the scope of the problem and that it’s not just people on the Arkansas side of the river who are concerned. Even now, when faced with questions, Mr. Schroer replied that the decision is “final” and that TDOT “made the right decision.”
It’s understandable that Arkansas residents’ concerns are emotionally charged because TDOT essentially put a thumb in the eyes of their counterparts in that state. Despite the impact on the western bank of the Mississippi River, TDOT has acted pretty much unilaterally because Arkansas highway officials’ agreement was not required since the entire construction project is on the Tennessee side of the river.
The exercise in unneighborliness comes at an awkward time for local officials working on the Main to Main Project to fulfill local entrepreneur and philanthropist Charles McVean’s vision for the pedestrian/bike addition to the Harahan Bridge. That project is to be completed by mid-2016, and Mr. McVean has talked to West Memphis and Arkansas officials about creation of a destination on the western bank of the river, such as a nature center or another destination point offering the finest views of downtown Memphis, that creates a greater purpose in crossing the bridge (and defying predictions that most people will walk about halfway across from the Memphis side and then walk back).
Meanwhile, highly-respected Arkansas Senator and Minority Leader Keith Ingram said that the economic impact of the bridge closure is estimated to be $45 million per week to the region, or more than $1.5 billion for the projected nine-month construction period. It is also his contention that TDOT has not complied with the requirements of National Environmental Policy Act and other laws.
Let the Sunshine In
A few years ago, an impact study was conducted of the bridge closure as a result of homeland security concerns, but we’ve been unable to find the full report on the TDOT website. While some suggest intentional obfuscation, we’re chalking it up to yet another glitch on the state website.
But, all in all, it’s pretty hard to disagree with Mr. Ingram that “legal issues aside, the consequences of the closure of the bridge for nine months are such that, even if such laws did not exist, common sense and sound public policy would dictate a reconsideration of this matter, with a heavy presumption against closure of the bridge for a lengthy period of time.”
There are a number of Memphis business leaders who are asking for a full briefing by TDOT, but the first step in preparation for that meeting should be for TDOT to release all alternates with backup information, to answers questions about the Environmental Impact Statement, and to explain why no economic impact study has been undertaken.
In other words, the best way to clear the air is for TDOT to put everything into the public record and let the public decide for itself.
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