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Bumps in the Road

I-269 presses on despite bad press from Sierra Club.

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The Sierra Club has its eye on Memphis' I-269 loop, the outer beltway that will skirt the eastern side of Shelby County from Millington to Mississippi, and it doesn't like what it sees.

In November, the Sierra Club issued a national report, "Smart Choices, Less Traffic: 50 Best and Worst Transportation Projects in the United States," and listed the I-269 loop as one of the worst transportation projects in the country for its perpetuation of an oil-dependent transportation system.

"Too often transportation projects undermine the higher national goals of reducing oil consumption, increasing safety, improving public health, and saving local, state, or federal government — and citizens — money," the report states.

Each of the 50 projects was reviewed based on five criteria: oil-use impact, environmental impact, health impact, economic impact, and land-use impact. The best projects, according to the report, are focused on the "safe, efficient movement of people," and, in particular, those that bolster public transportation systems or biking and walking trails. The worst are those that rely on an "outdated" and oil-dependent model of "moving cars as quickly as possible with little consideration for the communities they pass through."

As for I-269, the report cites opposition by the citizens and mayors of Memphis and Shelby County, who have feared the project "would induce sprawl and deepen economic segregation in the region."

"Another objection is that it is mainly a real estate development scheme," the report states, "designed to spur the growth of suburbs that will waste tax dollars for the benefit of developers."

The 1-269 loop is, for all intents and purposes, a done deal. The smaller 385 loop, which connects I-269 from Millington to the I-240 loop, will be finished by the end of 2013. The complete I-269 loop, which begins at I-69 in Millington, curves eastward around Lakeland and Collierville and dips down to reconnect with I-69 in Mississippi, will be finished in June of 2015.

"We try to build for the future," said Nichole Lawrence of the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT). "TDOT is striving to be the best multimodal transportation system in the nation."

But some see that vision for the future as shortsighted, if not deleterious.

"I think it hurts Memphis," Memphis city councilman Jim Strickland said. "We're already losing about a half-percent of our population every year. Our tax base is static. We collectively are going to make it easier to live outside the county and still work and enjoy the amenities of the city. The road is literally going to be paved to allow more people to do that."

"In the future, we're not going to be able to be quite so oil-based," Dennis Lynch of the local Sierra Club Chickasaw Group said. "We need to be promoting development in our existing cities and promoting transportation choices that aren't just more roads out in the suburbs or exurbs."

Strickland said, although the deal is done and the building has begun, he sees this as a challenge to improve things in Memphis by tackling crime and problems with the education system "so that people will want to live in Memphis, and they won't want those long commutes."

But Lynch is staying focused on the transit: "We've got to improve transit options within the center city and stop encouraging people to move farther and farther away. Our highway system subsidizes people who drive cars."

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