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VOL. 9 | NO. 28 | Saturday, July 9, 2016

Storied University of Memphis Railroad Right Of Way To Become Safer, Greener

By Bill Dries

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When classes resume at the University of Memphis in August, the unofficial campus tradition of crossing the railroad tracks along Southern Avenue will change.

Architect Ritchie Smith walks the length of railroad track that bisects the University of Memphis campus. Several new pedestrian crossings are presently being constructed with green elements.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

Students on foot will no longer be able to cross just anywhere along the 2,000 feet of track between Patterson and Zach Curlin.

There will be a five-foot high iron fence on both sides of the Norfolk Southern right of way and three new pedestrian and bicycle crossings. They replace six existing, outdated and largely forgotten pedestrian crossings.

“The students will no longer be able to just freelance across the track like they’ve been doing since 1912,” said landscape architect Ritchie Smith, whose firm designed the $1.8 million project. “The students will be guided and funneled into these three crossings.”

The rail line has been there since before there was a university or college on the land.

And a lot has changed in more than a century, even on the railroad right of way, which had a role in creating the look of an area where pieces have been added here and there.

“It had side yards and other large paved areas, just a lot of industrial clutter that was never removed when some of the rail functions had changed over the decades,” Smith said. “We are removing all of that and primarily paving and curbing and turning it into green space. So you’re going to have a 2,000-foot long green ribbon on the edge of the campus, much more attractive than what you’ve had in the past. “

The area just outside the railroad right of way included an encampment of crates and boxes that were home for several years in the 1980s to Edward Williamson, known as Box Car Eddie.

(Ritchie Smith Associates)

Getting the ribbon of landscaping took a lot of negotiation with Norfolk Southern Corp. executives who might have thought the renderings were attractive, but remain focused on safety – specifically that their operators be able to see what and who is around the tracks in the dense, urban environment.

Smith said the primary edict was no trees. Further west along the right of way that is west of the Highland Street crossing, homeowners thought they had secured an agreement with the railroad to plant a row of trees as a buffer along that part of Southern Avenue.

Despite the understanding, the railroad still had the trees cut down before a second planting.

With that in mind, negotiations on the section for the pedestrian crossing were specific and detailed.

“The main landscape treatment is all new grass sod across the whole 2,000-foot band,” Smith said. “For the first time, you are going to have a green, smooth attractive lawn area of what was paved and graveled and really looking abandoned and somewhat derelict.

“The railroad would not allow us to plant any trees . … But we do have lines of hedge and ornamental grasses along the south fence, which is the fence between the rail line and Southern.”

The pedestrian crossings are more than grade crossings. They have solar-powered lighting and flashing crossing lights with audible signals as a train approaches. The crossings meet Americans with Disabilities Act standards and they have gates designed to make pedestrians think before they cross.

“They are passive gates,” said Tony Poteet, assistant vice president of campus planning and design for the University of Memphis. “Those gates, they would never lock you in between the gates. They are intended to let you know you are entering a dangerous area, for you to watch out.”

Smith puts the cost of each set at $240,000 and they are state of the art.

Construction of several new pedestrian railroad crossings is underway on the stretch of track running between Walker and Southern, through the U of M campus.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

For the $1.8 million total, 80 percent is a Tennessee Department of Transportation grant with a 20 percent funding match from the university.

“Nothing like this exists in Tennessee,” he said. “This is all cutting edge. We had a difficult time finding references for crossings like this.”

The northern side of Southern will get a sidewalk it has never had. Poteet said work crews are almost finished with what is a central element in tying together the more pedestrian friendly elements underway in other nearby projects. That includes streetscape improvements on Walker Avenue and the land bridge from the campus area south of the tracks into the heart of the university’s traditional campus and alumni mall.

“It’s more attractive obviously, but the sidewalk on the north side of Southern, so that you can traverse from where you park your car to the safe crossing, is an integral part of the whole project,” Poteet said.

The most prominent of the three pedestrian crossings is where Echles Street dead ends into Southern Avenue on the south side of the tracks. The crossing is directly south of the alumni mall and the administration building at the other end of the mall.

It’s also where the old Normal Depot stood until 1948 when the rail line was for passengers as well as freight.

Smith’s group found the brick footing for the building and could make out the outline of the building without too much effort.

“We had the contractor do a very slight restoration, just so the brick would be more visible,” Smith said. “It’s not a wall or anything above grade. It was more or less buried and invisible. Now we’ve got the brick outline of the building. We took out all the grass in what was the building interior and put in crushed gravel in the building footprint.”

The contractor is Zellner Construction Services, with engineering by Allen & Hoshall.

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