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VOL. 123 | NO. 153 | Wednesday, August 6, 2008

DRA Report Could Spark Federal Funding

By Eric Smith

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CASHING IN: Transportation centers such as Frank C. Pidgeon Industrial Park could benefit from the Delta Regional Authority’s study of multimodal transportation assets and needs, which the Clarksdale, Miss.-based organization has submitted to the federal government. The report emphasizes the importance of Memphis as the economic engine for the Delta and the center of multimodal operations in this region. -- PHOTO COURTESY OF PORT OF MEMPHIS

The Delta Regional Authority has submitted its study of multimodal transportation assets and needs to the federal government, a massive document chockfull of issues pertaining to Memphis’ logistics and distribution sectors.

The report affirms Memphis’ role as the area’s economic driving force and its findings could fuel congressional funding for crucial infrastructure and related needs.

Clarksdale, Miss.-based Delta Regional Authority (DRA) was established by the U.S. Congress in 2000 to “enhance economic development and improve the quality of life for the hard-working residents of this region,” according to the organization’s Web site, www.dra.gov.

And while the organization’s expansive footprint includes eight states and extends from Illinois to Louisiana (plus a section of Alabama), DRA has targeted Memphis – for many, the nexus of the Delta – as its chief transportation and multimodal hub.

Pete Johnson is the DRA’s federal co-chairman appointed by President George W. Bush and confirmed by the U.S. Senate in 2001. He spoke by phone from Clarksdale this week of the city’s key role in the Delta’s multimodal mission.

“Memphis, being an international logistics center, is the economic engine for the region,” he said. “Its impact is felt all over the region, so this multimodal study should have an impact on Memphis and the metropolitan area and the economic engine that Memphis is. We think it will serve as a good guide for the members of Congress to say, ‘OK, we want to make sure Memphis continues to be competitive on a global field and these are the things that this plan says we have to do.’”

One’s bane, another’s boon

In this post-Katrina world, Memphis has become in many ways the lone economic capital of the Delta. It shared that distinction with New Orleans until August 2005, when the devastating hurricane hit.

“Though New Orleans is coming back,” Johnson said, “it’s not where it was before Katrina.”

Because of that, Memphis played a prominent role in the document DRA submitted last week to President Bush and Congress. The city’s prevalence of logistics and distribution companies coupled with its robust infrastructure of rail, road, river and air make it unique in the Delta.

“Memphis is a key strategic location for freight rail and one of only three U.S. cities to be served by at least five Class I railroad companies,” Johnson wrote in a report summary.

“It has a terrific strategic advantage, and this multimodal plan is designed to help make sure it maintains that strategic advantage by providing Congress a blueprint for investing in infrastructure that will complement the Mid-South,” he added.

That strategic location could be even more important in the changing economy, Johnson argued. With the rise of gas prices, Memphis’ position in the middle of the country might make it even more viable as shippers alter the way they do business.

“In the logistics chain, the carriers have milked every dime they have out of every component in that chain,” Johnson said. “The only thing left in that chain where they can improve on their efficiencies is the distance between a major hub and service areas. What that says is that the closer a business is located to Memphis, the more cost-efficient it’s going to be. With that in mind, what kind of infrastructure will we need to complement that for the Memphis and Mid-South area?”

Larger funding picture

The DRA’s multimodal assets and needs study was mandated by Congress as part of the organization’s responsibility for existence. The “inch-and-a-half thick” document soon will be available on DRA’s Web site, www.dra.gov, where people can see the myriad multimodal needs for Memphis and the entire Delta.

In it, DRA asks for specific transportation and multimodal needs and assets to be funded in years to come.

“It is huge. It encompasses everything you can imagine in the multimodal arena,” said Johnson, adding that public comment was crucial to compiling the report. “So to expect that everything will be funded would be unrealistic. But I do think that it will serve as a roadmap for the members to say, ‘OK, there is a rhyme and a reason for us to be able to fund additional bridges or additional roads or additional runways or additional railroads.’ It will serve as the basis for Congress to fund various projects.”

The next step, Johnson said, will be for Congress to use the study as a basis for what programs throughout the region need funding the most. It details some of the ways Memphis can benefit from the proper maintenance and modernization of transportation infrastructure – such as “increased safety, congestion relief, improved freight mobility and increased intermodal connectivity,” Johnson wrote.

“They may fund a port here or a railroad there or bridges here and there,” Johnson said. “They want to make sure they fit into a specific matrix and plan with specific needs involved so they could project a beneficial outcome of the use of those tax dollars.

“Over time, we think it’s going to be used frequently by Congress to help this region.”

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