Plan dropped to shut bridge at Memphis

Tennessee rethinks I-55 job

Sen. Keith Ingram, D-West Memphis, watches proceedings in the House chamber at the Arkansas state Capitol in this file photo from 2011.
Sen. Keith Ingram, D-West Memphis, watches proceedings in the House chamber at the Arkansas state Capitol in this file photo from 2011.

Tennessee highway officials have scrapped plans to award a contract by the end of the year for a project on an Interstate 55 interchange in Memphis that would have closed the I-55 Mississippi River bridge for nine months in 2017.

Instead, they announced Friday that they will conduct more-detailed assessments of the economic and community effects of doing the project at the I-55/E.H. Crump Boulevard interchange with a bridge closure for nine months or rebuilding the interchange with partial lane closures.

The interchange project would take six years to complete with partial lane closures, or twice the amount of time if the bridge was closed, Tennessee officials have said.

A new date to award a contract will be set once the studies are completed, a process that could take as long as a year, the Tennessee Department of Transportation said in a statement Friday.

The decision to delay the project and perform the more-detailed studies is based on public comment from meetings held earlier this year.

"Over the past several weeks, we have heard from residents, business owners, elected officials and other stakeholders in Memphis and in Arkansas, and we understand there is a significant level of concern over a full closure of the Memphis-Arkansas Bridge," the head of the Tennessee agency, John Schroer, said in the statement. "We want to take the opportunity to address those concerns before moving forward with construction."

The announcement to close the bridge prompted loud protests from the Arkansas side of the bridge, led by state Sen. Keith Ingram, D-West Memphis, whose hometown of more than 25,000 people is on the bridge's west side.

He and others, including the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, said the crossing was too important to the regional economy, including freight and employee commutes, to close without more consultation with people on the Arkansas side of the bridge. Ingram began an online petition, "Keep the Old Bridge Open," that gathered close to 2,800 signatures.

The "Old Bridge," as many users call it, carries about the same amount of traffic, 45,000 vehicles daily, as the other crossing between Memphis and West Memphis, the Interstate 40, or Hernando de Soto, Bridge.

Many residents and others in Arkansas questioned whether the I-40 bridge could handle the extra traffic even with all six lanes open, which has periodically not been the case during work to seismically retrofit the bridge. The I-40 retrofit project was expected to be completed by the time the I-55 interchange project began.

"Commissioner Schroer made a special trip over last week to discuss the situation," Ingram said Friday. "We appreciate TDOT listening to our concerns."

The Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department had no comment because the matter involved a Tennessee project, but a member of the Arkansas Highway Commission, Robert Moore Jr. of Arkansas City, expressed happiness with Friday's announcement. The five-member commission, whose members are appointed to 10-year terms by the governor, oversees the department.

"In the abstract, [improving the interchange] is a good project," Moore said Friday. "Congestion relief, there's no doubt, is needed. But to give a good review to the impact it's going to have on the economy and to look at new designs and possibly new ways of doing it is certainly meritorious."

The studies will be performed under what is formally known as a limited scope supplemental environmental impact statement, the goal of which is to determine "the possible regional economic and community impacts relating the project," the Tennessee Transportation Department statement said.

The decision has the approval of the Federal Highway Administration, the statement added.

The new review will include more meetings with the public and various stakeholders, including local elected officials and freight companies.

Tennessee highway officials said in announcing the decision to close the bridge in May that it was the only practical way to accommodate reconstruction of the interchange, which lies near Memphis' historic French Fort neighborhood.

The interchange is just east of the bridge. If the interchange was closed for construction, it effectively shuts down traffic on the bridge.

"There is simply not enough space to rebuild this interchange, preserve the French Fort neighborhood, and maintain traffic across the I-55 bridge," Schroer said on May 27.

The 51-year-old interchange, built at a time when 15,000 vehicles used it daily, is a clover-leaf design popular in its time but considered substandard now, especially for the 60,000 vehicles that now use the interchange each day.

Traffic within the interchange is projected to grow to 85,000 vehicles daily by 2035.

Schroer and other Tennessee highway officials say the project, initially estimated at $60 million, would be much more costly if they didn't shut down traffic on the bridge.

But Ingram said he hoped the Tennessee officials would consider some innovative construction techniques, including design-build.

That method combines a contractor and a design engineer to start construction from a partial design of the project and complete the design while it is under construction.

That method, as opposed to one entity designing the project and submitting it to allow contractors to bid on it, can save time on certain projects by giving the contractors and engineers awarded the project more options to finish it more quickly.

Arkansas highway officials say they will use the design-build method for the project to rebuild the Interstate 30 corridor through downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock.

A Section on 07/25/2015

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