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LIGHT RAIL PLAN LAYS TRACKS TO THE AIRPORT

LIGHT RAIL PLAN LAYS TRACKS TO THE AIRPORT

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Will Hudson, general manager of the Memphis Area Transit Authority and his light Rail experts pulled into the Memphis City Council’s Transportation Committee meeting January 2nd. With funding from a million-dollar grant, the Regional Rail Steering Committee was appointed by Mayor Herenton to study two light rail transportation issues. The first was the selection of the best routes to link downtown to north, south, and east Memphis The second involved finding a source of funding for the light rail system. Hudson began by saying, “We have gotten approval from the city council for the first leg of the light rail that goes out Madison to Cleveland. The second phase of the program will continue down Madison going out to Parkway. From there you can go either north, south, east, or a combination of all three.” Tom Fox, director of capital improvements at MATA, added, “By the year 2020 we expect to have all three built.” The corridors referred to have always been aligned with the major railroad tracks that traverse the city. These include the Canadian Northern/Illinois Central Lines on a north-south axis and the Norfolk Southern Line going out east. The north corridor extends through Frayser to Millington. The south potentially goes to Tunica. A newly combined, part-south and mostly-east corridor extends out through Germantown to Collierville and incorporates the airport. In presenting his group’s evaluation of the three corridors, Hudson said, “It is now time for us to select one.” The Regional Rail Steering Committee identified a number of criteria that would be foremost in determining which areas would be established as corridors and ultimately which one would then be selected for initial construction. Access and mobility to jobs was ranked as the first priority. Parsons Brinckerhoff, a recognized transportation consulting firm, was then hired to see how each of the selected corridors measured up. A detailed matrix summarizing each corridor’s characteristics demonstrated substantial differences regarding length in miles, movement to job centers, impact on low income areas, traffic congestion, and operating costs. Consultant Michael Eidlin stated, “One of our first challenges was to see if there were other alternatives to the railroad rights-of-way if for some reason we were not able to use their properties.” Previously, MATA had city council approval to purchase an abandoned railroad right-of-way to Cordova but those plans did not materialize. A number of alignments that are essentially surface routes outside of the present rail trackage are possible if the railroads choose not to participate. However, defining the actual routing remains a part of the upcoming development phase once a corridor is selected. Following these initial studies, significant changes in the region’s demographics have occurred. Two major factors have changed in the northern corridor. Staff reductions at the Naval Air Station at Millington -- now Naval Support Activity Memphis -- and decreased growth in Tipton County have greatly diminished the group’s attraction to that corridor. Furthermore, Council member Janet Hooks who chaired this meeting said, “In between the north and southeast corridors, where Highway 64 and Wolfchase are, there is an awful lot of growth. At some point we need to look at that as a potential corridor.” The preeminent corridor, the Southeast, is the longest and would be the most costly. One proposed routing would involve 4.5 miles along or on city streets and another 21 miles of shared railroad right of way. The projected costs are expected to approach half a billion dollars. Initially, the most viable option involves a spur to Memphis International Airport. It would begin with the existing downtown trolley system and the planned Medical Center segment down Madison Avenue. "Getting to the airport was most important", according to feedback Eidlin and his associates received from a series of public meetings held last October and December. The consulting firm also identified some of the benefits of a light rail system with infrastructure improvements, accessibility, and travel convenience. Concerns were expressed over funding, construction delays, safety, and the impact the final routing could have in revitalizing a depressed area by new growth within the corridor. Dexter Muller is chair of the subcommittee within the Regional Rail Steering Committee that handled the final corridor selection. “The subcommittee essentially recommended that the first thing to do is connect to the airport,” he says. Alternatives such as going out Cleveland instead of Parkway were one of other options taken into account. “The airport area is the biggest employment center in the entire county,” says Muller. "The airport area is quite spread out, but number-wise there are substantially more jobs [in comparison to other areas].” Muller concluded by saying, “We have to begin with one corridor in order to make progress within thefederal system for getting funds.” The airport segment is about five miles long. “This is what the federal government typically likes to fund,” added Muller. The final selection will require coordination and approval between the MATA board of commissioners and the city council.

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