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VOL. 127 | NO. 151 | Friday, August 3, 2012

Congestion Woes

TDOT commissioner talks importance of improving Lamar Corridor

By Bill Dries

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Tennessee Transportation Commissioner John Schroer told the Regional Logistics Council Thursday, Aug. 2, that his office has the “right priority list” of road projects for the Memphis area.

Heavy semitrailer traffic along Lamar Avenue near Shelby Drive and the BNSF Intermodal Train Yard is part of the congestion along the corridor. 

(Photos: Lance Murphey)

And he didn’t waste another sentence getting to the project at the top of that list for the group of 150 industry professionals in the room at the Memphis Marriott Hotel – the southern part of Lamar Avenue to the Mississippi state line.

The corridor that carries most of the region’s freight is also the most congested major thoroughfare in the city.

“We know how bad Lamar Avenue is and we know how expensive Lamar Avenue is and it’s mainly expensive because of right of way,” Schroer said.

The undertaking is so big and the dollar figure for decongesting Lamar is so high that Schroer said past state transportation officials often haven’t started toward a solution at all because of the price tag of an estimated $500 million to $700 million.

“This year, I said, ‘Let’s just start. Let’s put our toe in the water. Let’s start putting money away to at least buy infrastructure,’” Schroer said, adding that he hopes to work with the Metropolitan Planning Organization, which routinely has Lamar at the top of its priority list to use some of the funding it has access to as well.

“Does that mean it’s going to happen next year or the following? No,” he said. “But you can tell companies – you can tell people who are interested in coming to this area it will come. And there is money there and we are going to move along this process.”

State Senate Republican leader Mark Norris of Collierville acknowledged there were concerns that the change in state administrations from former Gov. Phil Bredesen to Bill Haslam in 2011 would mean a few steps back for a long-delayed project. Norris credited Haslam and Schroer with keeping attention on and momentum behind the Lamar efforts.

A freight train leaves the BNSF Intermodal Train Yard along the busy Lamar Avenue Corridor. 

“People in Memphis were sweating blood when the new administration took office in January of 2011,” he said. “Typically under previous administrations … issues like this would take an entire administration – eight years – before you would see any reaction from the administration.”

TDOT is specifically looking at options recommended in a June 2011 study it commissioned by Cambridge Systematics Inc. that would replace the Lamar and Holmes Road and Lamar and Winchester Road intersections with interchanges. The study was done in association with Kimley-Horn & Associates and the University of Memphis.

The state has $34 million in the fiscal year 2014 transportation budget for Lamar right of way and TDOT has agreed to fund additional environmental work.

“There are so many businesses on Lamar serving the business that’s there. With the intermodal facility that is now there, the amount of truck traffic is ridiculously high,” Schroer said after his remarks. “We’ve got to buy a lot of property and make it happen. … It’s going to require us probably taking out a lot of businesses, which means it is a very expensive undertaking and it is going to take a lot of time to do it.”

U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, has said and said again Thursday that U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has also made the Lamar corridor a priority at the federal level.

But Schroer said so far he hasn’t seen federal involvement and that the state is moving forward without an expectation of that at least for now.

On the other hand, the state is not moving ahead with any funding of the Tennessee portion of the Interstate 69 project until or unless there is a dedicated source of funding.

The $140 million the state has spent on the north-south interstate so far has been federal highway fund money.

“We have 1,500 projects and $9.5 billion worth of work. I-69 is an important road if it is built to completion north to south. It is, in my opinion, not as important if it’s only built from Mississippi to Kentucky,” Schroer said in response to a question about I-69. “We are spending our money on other projects that have a larger, more immediate impact and using the limited dollars we have to impact more people throughout the state. Until we get dedicated funding for I-69 we won’t be spending any more money on it.”

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