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A Blocked Union?

Downtown traffic is about to get worse. It's just a matter of when.

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When it comes to avoiding downtown traffic, drivers need to time it just right. So does the city.

Jerry Collins, director of public works, said the city will likely make a decision this week about when to begin the six- to nine-month drainage project on Union Avenue and Third Street downtown.

Collins, mayor Willie Herenton, and representatives from Beale Street, the Memphis Grizzlies, the FedExForum, the Redbirds, and Toyota Plaza met June 23rd to discuss timetables and possible ramifications of the project.

"Some time ago, we didn't have the resources for this project," Herenton told the group. "As of July 1st, we have the resources, and we have the plans."

The first phase of construction -- a bore pit near Union and Fourth -- could begin as early as September. Under this scenario, the city would have to declare the project an emergency to waive normal purchasing procedures. Construction would overlap the first season the Grizzlies and the University of Memphis Tigers are in the FedExForum and would be completed near the beginning of the Redbirds season, Memphis in May, and the NBA playoffs.

Under another option, the city could choose to wait until January 2005 to start the project. Construction would be ongoing during the last half of the basketball season and through part or all of the Redbirds' season but would be completed before the Grizzlies' second season in the Forum.

The last option is delaying the project until June 2005 and the driest part of the year. That schedule conflicts with most of the Redbirds' season and overlaps the start of basketball season.

No plan met with everyone's approval. Representatives from Parkway Properties, owners of Toyota Center, said they were concerned with safety issues and thought the work should be done as soon as possible. But executives with the Grizzlies were worried about the effect the expedited schedule would have on downtown traffic flow. Grizzlies president of operations Andy Dolich said, "We do have the largest public works project [in the city] opening in August and September and there will be some unanswered questions."

Memphis Redbirds Baseball Foundation president Rita Sparks said their main concern was that phase three of the project -- a pit at the corner of Union and Third, right in front of AutoZone Park's gates -- not happen in the middle of the Redbirds' season, a possible scenario if project dates are delayed until next year.

Collins said the city is still getting input from various groups, but a decision is forthcoming. "There are a lot of things going on in the downtown area. We want to make sure we don't unduly cause difficulties," said Collins. "It's not every year we have the grand opening of the FedExForum."

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