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VOL. 124 | NO. 132 | Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Committee Whittles Priority List For Road Projects

By Eric Smith

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PET PROJECT: The interchange at Interstate 240 and Airways Boulevard is the No. 1 road priority for the Major Roads Committee. -- PHOTO COURTESY OF MEMPHIS MPO

Although the city’s airport garners the most attention because of its ranking as the world’s busiest for air cargo, Memphis’ road system is the foundation for its status as a logistics and distribution nexus.

Without adequate highway and service roads, it would be impossible to connect the city’s assets – from Memphis International Airport to the river port to the intermodal yards to all the warehouses – with the rest of the world.

One group dedicated to the enhancement of those connecting roads is the Greater Memphis Chamber’s major roads committee, a collaboration of public and private stakeholders committed to improving the corridors that helped define the city as “America’s Distribution Center.”

The committee was formed a few years ago to address a concern that Memphis wasn’t getting enough funding from the state for roads projects. People like John Dudas of Belz Enterprises realized that Memphis needed an advocate to get those projects prioritized and funded.

“Even if you took it based on population, we were below our fair share,” Dudas said. “We set as a goal that we should get at least as much funding as is the percentage we are of the state population. We feel like we finally have moved pretty close to that range.”

Priorities and points?

The major roads committee was born from the Memphis Metropolitan Planning Organization.

Within the committee’s 60 to 70 members, a 20-person prioritization subcommittee doubles as the MPO’s freight committee. That group meets every month and determines the projects that get recommended to MPO, which in turn makes recommendations to the Tennessee Department of Transportation.

MPO coordinator Martha Lott, who took over the organization in 2005, said the evolution of the major roads committee’s prioritization subcommittee out of the MPO’s freight committee was a no-brainer.

Major Roads Committee Top 5 Projects
  • Interchange at I-240/Airways Blvd.
  • Interchange at I-55/Crump Blvd. (planned)
  • Lamar Avenue corridor (Raines Road to the Mississippi state line)
  • Interchange at I-40/I-240 (Phase 2)
  • Interchange at I-55 and Mallory Road (in progress)

“I thought, ‘Why create another group when I’ve got this group here that’s already looking at the same issues – logistics and development and the priorities of the roads?’” Lott said.

The major roads committee uses six categories to rank roads projects in the metropolitan area. They are congestion relief, access and mobility; economic opportunity and goods movement; safety and security; public/community support; environmental; and funding considerations.

Each category is assigned a number of points, with a higher number indicating a more pressing need. Some categories, such as congestion relief, are weighted because those factors are more critical in the committee members’ eyes.

The top five projects currently in the pipeline are the interchange at Interstate 240/Airways Boulevard; the interchange at I-55/Crump Blvd.; the Lamar Avenue corridor (Raines Road to the Mississippi state line); the interchange at I-40/I-240 (Phase 2); and the interchange at I-55 and Mallory Road.

The I-55 projects are in progress or planned, so those will fall off the next list, which the committee will compile and present to MPO next year. The current list was compiled in 2007 and presented in 2008; they are revised every two years.

“They’re top priorities,” Lott said. “If you take Lamar Avenue and all the congestion that we face with the truck traffic and the expansion of the BNSF rail yard down there, we’re expecting by October to have 300 trucks a day going in and out there, and that’s our No. 2 priority.”

Driver’s seat

Jim Covington, vice president of logistics and aerotropolis development for the chamber and the chamber’s liaison for the Major Roads Committee, said the group has helped move road projects “from the back seat to the front seat.”

That task is an important component of the development of aerotropolis, a concept in which Memphis International Airport is the economic engine for the entire region. The roads surrounding the airport not surprisingly are high on the major roads committee’s list.

“The two doors to the aerotropolis are the Lamar and Airways/240 entrances. They’re … the front doors,” Covington said. “Intermodal-wise, we’re talking about Lamar connecting traffic from Mississippi and Alabama ending up in Memphis. We have the Burlington Northern yard that’s adjacent to it, the airport that’s adjacent to it. When you’re talking about intermodal, you can’t get any more intermodal than that.

“That whole corridor is key to the future, mainly because of all the development that fits in with all those different modes of transportation.”

The major roads committee is now working on the next prioritization list. Because of the city’s role as a transportation hub, the top projects – such as congestion relief at I-240 and Airways – are costly. That makes the committee’s job mission critical for the city to continue serving as a logistics and distribution center.

“In order to fund them, it may be that we get funding for only one or two projects, but it’s because the projects are so large,” Lott said. “The Memphis MPO, in utilizing the major roads committee’s prioritization subcommittee as a component of the freight committee, has become a best practice across the state. The major roads committee has total support of the MPO.”

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