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VOL. 126 | NO. 167 | Friday, August 26, 2011

Unlocking Lamar

Planners mull ways to improve transportation corridor

By Bill Dries

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The city’s major corridor for moving freight is also the city’s most congested roadway. And since June, state and local transportation and logistics planners have had a study that suggests a set of seven options, most of which would represent major changes for Lamar Avenue between the Mississippi state line and Interstate 240.

Trucks merge onto Interstate 240 from Lamar Avenue, a corridor that is constantly clogged by traffic congestion, most of which is thanks to a heavy dose of freight being moved along the road.
(Photo: Lance Murphey)

The study, completed by Cambridge Systematics Inc. of Cambridge, Mass., in association with the University of Memphis and Kimley-Horn & Associates, was commissioned by the Tennessee Department of Transportation.

From the study TDOT officials are looking closely at options that would replace the Lamar intersections at Holmes and Winchester roads and Shelby Drive with interchanges, said Martin Lipinski, University of Memphis civil engineering professor and director of the U of M Intermodal Freight Transportation Institute.

“For us to continue to be one of the premier warehouse distribution centers in the country, these industries need better access and more reliable access to their facilities,” he said. “Just the unreliability of congestion is a factor that concerns everyone interested in economic development in this community.”

The stretch of Lamar is critical to the logistics industry. It includes the BNSF Railway Co. intermodal yard and is within five miles of Memphis International Airport.

There are so many trucking and logistics companies on Lamar that diverting traffic to other streets isn’t seen as effective enough to put a dent in the congestion.

The estimated cost of improving the three interchanges with Lamar remaining at four lanes is $213.2 million. Improving the interchanges and converting Lamar to a six-lane roadway goes up to $275.1 million.

The costliest option would be upgrading Lamar to an interstate. The study pegs the cost of that at approximately $637.9 million.

“I don’t think the analysis of that even really touched on the true cost of all of the right of way,” Lipinski said. “How do you create an interstate and still maintain access to all businesses?”

That’s also an issue with the construction of any interchanges.

“We have difficulty in dealing with purchasing of land, right-of-way cost and more importantly what do you do in the meantime when you are building something like this,” Lipinski said. “How do you stage things so that you don’t actually shut down Lamar for 18 months while you are doing that? These are kind of the issues that are being digested back and forth.”

The study, which Lipinski contributed to, noted the interchanges are key to cutting average delays. The estimate is that converting Lamar to six lanes with the three improved interchanges provides “the best performance of the non-interstate alternatives” with 3.3 minutes of average delay in the simulation used to time out delays.

Leaving Lamar at four lanes with the three interchanges has a 4.4-minute average delay.

In the middle is converting Lamar to six lanes and improving only the interchanges at Winchester and Shelby. The average delay for that option is four minutes and the cost is $248.9 million.

Such time measurements are crucial to logistics companies that operate on tight schedules and need consistency.

“If one day it takes five minutes, the next day it takes a half hour – that’s a real cost to them and they can’t schedule properly,” Lipinski said. “Then you have who is paying for this and that is the taxpayers through TDOT. Then you get into a bind of what is cost effective from the taxpayer’s perspective.”

The Cambridge study is called a final study, but that’s a fluid term in road planning where a final study is often followed by years of public hearings and gaps of months between the hearings.

TDOT wants the Metropolitan Planning Organization, government leaders, those in the logistics industry and other citizens to prioritize what they would like to see on Lamar Avenue.

Lamar always has been a freight corridor since there was a freight business that wasn’t exclusively rail based. But the business has changed rapidly in 30 years.

Containers shipped by boat that first move on the continent by rail and are then put on truck beds are expected to grow in volume with the coming expansion of the Panama Canal making some East Coast ports more important and much busier.

Memphis will feel the impact, which means Lamar Avenue will as well.

“In an old traditional freight yard 30 years ago there was not much truck traffic coming in and out,” Lipinski said referring to the BNSF intermodal facility’s origins as a more traditional freight yard. “Now with the switch to intermodal, with all of these containers coming in (by rail) from Long Beach (Calif.), and Seattle and points West which are then put on rubber tires and put on the street system, it created a whole new level of demand.”

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