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VOL. 124 | NO. 123 | Thursday, June 25, 2009

Poplar Rail Study Juggles Citizen, Business Concerns

By Eric Smith

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PERENNIAL HEADACHE: The railway crossing at Southern Avenue and Perkins Road Extended is one of the areas where the Memphis Metropolitan Planning Organization is looking at the traffic flow for its Poplar/Southern Corridor Study. -- PHOTO BY ERIC SMITH

Paul Morris empathizes with the college students who climb over the trains stopped on the tracks that intersect the University of Memphis campus on their way to class.

“I was one of them back in the 1980s,” he said with a laugh.

He also empathizes with anyone who gets caught by a train as they make their way across the rail line that parallels Southern and Poplar avenues, from the Mid-South Fairgrounds all the way out to the Shelby-Fayette County border.

Recently, he was held up for a long time by a train at the intersection of White Station Road and Poplar Avenue, and just a few minutes later he narrowly missed getting held up by a second train going in the opposite direction.

Morris now cringes at the thought of students risking their lives to make it to class on time or commuters trying to beat the train at a crossing, but as a planner for the Memphis Metropolitan Planning Organization, he also is charged with addressing these issues.

Balance between people, goods

Morris is looking for ways to help mitigate some of the efficiency and safety problems that train crossings present. He is heading the MPO’s Poplar/Southern Corridor Study, www.poplarsoutherncorridorstudy.com, which is under way and kicks off with a series of public comment sessions.

He understands how those who are affected by the trains the most – people who live or work near the track – might have some ideas about improving traffic flow and mitigating delays at railway crossings.

“A lot of the concern in the area is if you live near the Norfolk Southern line, their first concern is the volume of rail traffic that goes up and down the line on a daily basis,” Morris said. “The second part is you don’t realize how much traffic is in that area until the train comes by.”

This study area encompasses 63 road/rail crossings, 14 of which are private and 49 of which are public; it sees about 370,000 vehicles per day; there have been 49 incidents involving a train and car or pedestrian, with six injuries and three fatalities; and it is one of the most densely populated areas in Memphis, with 108,000 people living and 90,000 people working within one mile of the corridor.

When a train leaves Norfolk Southern’s Forrest Yard near the fairgrounds, specifically around Southern Avenue and Goodwyn Street, there isn’t an overpass or underpass until the track reaches Ridgeway Road, about six miles to the east.

One of the first trouble spots is at the University of Memphis, which is pushing for solutions to the problems caused when a train disrupts vehicular and pedestrian traffic on campus.

“There has been no progress toward either of those, but a grade separation for students and cars is still needed, for safety,” said U of M spokesman Curt Guenther.

Incremental medicine

The answer typically isn’t as simple as quickly building tunnels or bridges to allow easier flow for trains and cars. Neighboring homes and businesses all have a stake in how the situation can be enhanced.

“You don’t want to adversely affect the surroundings just to get traffic through,” Morris said. “For us, it’s about improving the quality of life in that area without adversely affecting the community.”

Another issue to consider is the economic benefit that trains provide Memphis, one of just three cities in the U.S. with five Class I railroads.

“It’s trying to balance that transportation, distribution segment of the economy that is Memphis,” Morris said. “Then there’s that other side where you’ve got people who live near the corridor, you’ve got people who have businesses near the corridor and you’ve got people who don’t necessarily live in that corridor, but … they travel in that area.”

One variable is traffic counts along the Southern-Poplar corridor could change once Norfolk Southern develops its massive intermodal facility in Fayette County. The Norfolk, Va.-based railroad will continue to run trains into and out of Forrest Yard, but it’s unclear how many will use the yard as an origination or destination point once the new terminal is built.

“They haven’t informed us of whether that once the Fayette County facility is developed, to what degree Forrest Yard will be in operation,” Morris said. “There’s talk that there may be more trains there; there’s talk that there may be less. Until we sit down and talk with them about their future operations, we can’t say.”

In addition to Morris and Martha Lott of MPO, other members of the study’s project team are Debra Daws and Brett Morgan of Dalhoff Thomas Daws; James Collins and Kenneth Monroe of Kimley-Horn and Associates Inc.; William Lee of ERA | AECOM; and Howard Robertson and Jae Henderson of Trust Marketing Inc.

For more information, including how to comment publicly, visit www.poplarsoutherncorridorstudy.com

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