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VOL. 126 | NO. 25 | Monday, February 7, 2011

Bridge to Everywhere

New Mississippi River span integral to keeping city competitive

JEFF IRELAND | Special to The Daily News

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In four years, there could be a location in the Memphis area designated for the construction of a new intermodal bridge spanning the Mississippi River.

Trucks cross the old bridge across the Mississippi River. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

Exactly when construction would begin and how it would be funded are matters to be determined later.

But for now, the Tennessee Department of Transportation is spearheading an environmental impact study to determine an appropriate location. The target date for its completion is 2015.

Once that is completed, officials hope things will move forward quickly toward the reality of a new bridge.

Transportation agencies in Arkansas and Mississippi, as well as the Memphis Metropolitan Planning Organization, the West Memphis Metropolitan Planning Organization and the Federal Highway Administration, are also involved in the project, which has been dubbed the Southern Gateway.

There are many reasons a new bridge is needed.

“This is not only a regional issue, but a national one,” said Arnold Perl, an attorney who serves as secretary and general counsel for the Greater Memphis Chamber.

Perl, also chair of the chamber’s Regional Logistics Council and the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority, said that a recent study concluded that if something happened to either the Hernando DeSoto (I-40) or Memphis-Arkansas (I-55) bridges, the economic impact on the nation would be between $11 billion and $15 billion a year.

Building a replacement bridge would take years, meaning the impact on Memphis and the country would be enormous because cargo wouldn’t be able to move across the Mississippi River along a key east-west transportation route.

Dexter Muller, senior vice president for community development at the Greater Memphis Chamber, said Memphis is the third-busiest truck and railroad corridor in the nation.

“If something was to happen, be it seismic or terrorist, you could not reroute that traffic,” Muller said. “You can see now that when any kind of repairs have to be done on one of the bridges, trucks are backed up for miles.”

Glenn Bolik, a spokesperson for the Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department, said people from Arkansas who make the commute to Memphis on a daily basis realized there is a need for a new bridge.

“The people who drive that area, I-55 and I-40, know it’s one of the heaviest exchanges in the area,” Bolik said. “A new option would certainly benefit everybody.”

The new bridge would be built to withstand an earthquake, something the Hernando DeSoto Bridge, built in 1973, and the Memphis-Arkansas Bridge, constructed in 1949, are not as equipped to handle. However, crews have been working on seismic retrofitting of the Hernando DeSoto Bridge.

The plan is also to explore the possibility of including a freight and passenger railroad, as well as means for pedestrians and bicyclists to utilize the bridge.

“The old bridge is, literally, old,” Perl said. “Neither (the old or new) bridge has the combination of road and rail. We need to streamline the process so we can grow the aerotropolis.”

The aerotropolis initiative focuses on promoting the region’s transportation assets, centered on Memphis International Airport as the economic engine.

TDOT officials are looking at an area between North Shelby County near Millington and I-69 in West DeSoto County, meaning it’s possible the bridge would not be located in Memphis, or even Tennessee.

After the environmental study is completed and a location is determined, TDOT or the Mississippi Department of Transportation, as well as the Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department, would get involved in the design, right of way and construction phases.

Whichever state gets the bridge would be involved in funding the project, something that is always a concern, particularly in today’s economic climate.

“With the way the economy is, everybody’s looking for dollars,” said Steve Chipman, the TDOT project manager for the Southern Gateway. “Part of the task is figuring out a way to fund it. That’s a big part of the project.”

Chipman said the idea of using a toll system for the bridge is being considered, as well as possibly partnering with a private company.

Public meetings, hearings, workshops and presentations are being planned by the agencies involved in the project. A website, southerngatewayproject.com, has been established that allows citizens to learn about the project and make comments and suggestions.

Meanwhile, community leaders like Muller and Perl will continue to push for something that would certainly have an enormous impact on the area.

“We need this bridge,” Muller said, “sooner rather than later.”

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