Few things epitomize America like the open road. Songs and books have chronicled ragtop journeys through the heartland and the free feeling you get when the gas gauge reads "full." But for most Americans the romance of the open road is dead. Oddball motels and quaint cafes still exist as temples to kitsch on the country's backroads, but most people don't see them anymore. For long trips, most of us use long, dull arteries of asphalt called interstates, exiting only for ubiquitous fast food and bathroom breaks.
For commuters, interstates are a daily necessity. Without I-40, Nonconnah Parkway, and Paul Barrett Parkway, many locals would have to leave home an hour earlier each morning. Ugly and soulless as interstates are -- even with wildflowers planted on the median -- they are an integral facet of American cities.
And Memphis is about to get another one.
Interstate 69, an ambitious highway project linking Canada to Mexico, is still in the planning stages. The largest interstate project undertaken in years, I-69 is the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) for truckers -- a 1,600-mile highway that will make north-south transport across North America easier than it's ever been. When completed it will zip through nine states from Lake Michigan to the Gulf of Mexico -- Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas.
Studies have shown that more than 4 billion tons of freight could move along the I-69 corridor each year. Memphis' central location and transportation-hub facilities mean much of this freight will pass through here.
But, by all accounts, Memphians won't be driving locally on I-69 for a while.
"The whole thing has to be funded, and we would probably contract out to do the section closest to Kentucky first," says Luanne Grandinetti, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT). "Basically, it's going to be a while before construction starts."
The Memphis Planning Organization speculates that it could be as long as 10 years before I-69 is completed in this area. But before the road can be built it has to be planned, and that's what has many local people concerned: Just where exactly will Segment of Independent Utility 9 (SIU 9) -- the Memphis portion of I-69 -- pass through the city? There are two basic options, and both are controversial, mostly because everybody wants to live near an interstate -- but not too near.
The various options associated with route "A," the western alignment, project I-69 running south through Millington, possibly joining Highway 51 near Frayser, cutting through north Memphis, and eventually aligning with I-240 through Midtown, widening that road. From there it would align with I-55 south into Hernando, Mississippi, where SIU 10, the Mississippi portion, would begin.
"A major interstate highway passing through or near downtown would unquestionably be a boost for the center city," says Jeff Sanford, president of the Center City Commission. "Downtown would gain accessibility and additional people would come in. It would also make the community easier for residents in suburban areas to commute to and could potentially increase the office real estate market."
City councilwoman Barbara Swearengen Holt, who represents north Memphis, wholeheartedly welcomes I-69 into her neighborhood.
"I'm in favor of I-69 coming through the city," says Holt. "Both mayors are fighting for it to come through, for the economic impact Memphis needs. It will be good for my community and good for the city. We need to find a way to get it."
Sanford believes that having I-69 near downtown could further propel improvements the city has made to the center-city area.
"The prospect of a new interstate in proximity to downtown comes at an interesting time downtown," says Sanford. "There's a renewed interest in downtown, and over $2 billion in projects are already underway in the area. If downtown was where it was 20 years ago, a nearby I-69 might not be as important as it is now."
But many Midtown residents, particularly in the Annesdale-Snowden Historic District, worry that expanding I-240 could result in lost homes, decreased property values, and possible encroachment on historic Elmwood Cemetery.
"It's going to be a challenge to expand the roadway within the existing right-of-way and still meet current highway standards," says Marty Lipinski, an Annesdale-Snowden resident and chairman of the civil engineering department at the University of Memphis.
The Annesdale-Snowden neighborhood association has hosted several community meetings to discuss I-69 concerns, which include Historic Elmwood Cemetery -- with its 70,000 graves, including 20 Civil War generals, veterans from every American war, senators, mayors, and governors -- and the Greenstone Apartments, both of which are on the National Register of Historic Places. Residents also worry that their homes will be impacted by the widening of I-240 and cite the I-40/Overton Park right-of-way battle in the 1970s which left many old homes destroyed, leaving vacant lots in their place. Other concerns are that widening will impact the new Bruce Elementary School on Lamar Avenue and that the additional truck traffic will bring increased air pollution, noise, and transport of hazardous materials.
"Annesdale-Snowden residents should monitor the progress and make sure the environmental-impact statement covers all the key points," warns Lipinski.
Annesdale-Snowden residents want to be assured that steps are taken to make the project as unobtrusive as possible.
"For instance, if they can get the road on the ground instead of in the air, they can put in sound barriers," says Nancy Jane Baker, manager of the Memphis Landmarks Commission. "I-240 at Annesdale-Snowden is elevated. If they can plan all of the overpasses to be on the ground instead, they can cut down on the noise."
Because I-69 is federal and not solely a state project, Grandinetti says TDOT will have to adhere to federal guidelines in terms of design.
"Noise walls would be considered, as with any project," says Grandinetti. "We would go by the federal standards on noise walls."
Which leaves the problem of traffic. Opponents of the widening of I-240 say that traffic is already congested during peak hours and that routing what is expected to be one of the country's most traveled interstates through Midtown is only going to make it worse.
Proponents say it won't be a problem. "[If] the proper roadway is designed, I think truck traffic won't be any more of a problem than it is in other major markets," says Sanford. "In the end, I say bring it on."
"The engineer's study is not expected until October. We're not saying we should do the western alignment at all costs, we just prefer it. North Memphis and Frayser need new development, and that's important," says Dexter Muller, senior vice president of infrastructure development for the Chamber of Commerce and former director of the Office of Planning and Development.
"The environmental assessment will show potential alignments, tell you how many houses, cemeteries, etc. would be affected. Those neighborhoods are important, and we need to be sensitive to them. I'm looking at trying to grow the community. I believe the roadway is very important to the inner city," says Muller, who has been involved in the planning of I-69 since the so-called NAFTA highway was proposed in the mid-1990s.
If the western alignment has aroused concern in Midtown, the eastern-alignment option is stirring emotions just as high in Collierville. Residents complain that they don't want an interstate in their backyard, and they mean that literally. Portions of I-69 would come within 1,500 feet of some of the town's pricier homes. Collierville residents have turned out in droves at the public planning meetings to express their disdain for the "B" route. Many say they moved to the eastern side of the county to get away from the massive development occurring closer to Memphis.
The B option would also join I-69 near Millington, but, instead of cutting through Frayser and North Memphis, the interstate would align with Paul Barrett Parkway (385) north of the city, curve through Collierville, and eventually link up with Nonconnah Parkway (385) to form an outer loop around Memphis.
Even with all the governmental support for the western alignment and the opposition of Collierville residents to the eastern alignment, most involved in I-69's planning maintain that an outer loop would benefit more people than it would harm, whether it is called I-69 or not.
"The city and county administrators and the chamber of commerce board have all endorsed the western alignment," says Muller. "But I also want to make it very clear that the [eastern] outer loop -- State Route 385 -- is being built. It's being designed, it's gone through hearings, and the right-of-way is being purchased. It could be done before I-69. It would form an outer loop that would connect all the way to 385 north of Memphis."
So, for Collierville residents, the fight is for the lesser of two evils. If they don't want a road at all, they certainly don't want one that will carry all of the shipping traffic between Canada and Mexico.
"There was opposition to 385 due to its location. it got too close to the neighborhoods," says Collierville's town administrator James Lewellen. "There is still opposition due to the high traffic."
Opponents of the eastern loop feel that not only would an I-69 segment disrupt their quality of life, the eastern loop would be ignored by those not wanting to take the Memphis detour.
"If it is called I-69, I think it will be a more symbolic than functional route," says Lewellen. "I think going the straight route through Memphis would be the route most truckers would prefer rather than going around the loop."
But Memphis and Tennessee officials aren't the only ones with influence on the alignment decision. SIU 9 also includes northern Mississippi's Desoto County and the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) has its own road plans that it would like to see helped along by the construction of the NAFTA highway.
"For me, it makes more sense to take the eastern route, but, first, we need to do the study and see what the need is," says Claiborne Barnwell, environmental division engineer for MDOT.
Long before the federal plans for I-69 were laid, MDOT anticipated building a road that would link I-55 to Nonconnah Parkway, which would speed traffic flow throughout northern Mississippi and bring major roadways to largely underserved areas.
"This project is extremely complicated," says Barnwell. "Mississippi knew a long time ago that Highway 304 needed to be reconstructed, and we took that on without any consideration to I-69. That portion from Hernando to Robinsonville later became a portion of the I-69 plans. Our plan was always for Highway 304 to wind around and tie in with Nonconnah Parkway. We anticipate building that road whether or not it is called I-69."
The secondary focus of I-69 is to serve underdeveloped areas like the lower Mississippi Delta region and the lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas, which currently have little access to interstate highways. MDOT, like TDOT in Tennessee, sees the federal funding that I-69 will provide as an opportunity to combine the two goals. By better linking roadways throughout Mississippi, MDOT can help bring development to the poorest areas of the state.
"In Memphis, the officials answer to the people who elected them, so I don't think they should be the ones we go to on this," says Barnwell. "We're talking about moving vehicles from Mexico to Canada. I don't think you should go to people with specialized interests for answers. That might not be the best choice, and the Memphis leaders shouldn't be the people everyone is listening to. This project is bigger than Memphis."
It's going to happen anyway
Despite differing opinions on routing, everyone involved is working together amicably. In fact, the resounding opinion of officials on both sides of Stateline Road is that, no matter the names, both routes will be built.
"TDOT has no preference on the routing of I-69," says Grandinetti. "But there is widening already planned for I-240 north of Walnut Grove to south of Poplar."
However, route A is the preferred alignment of the city and county mayors, the chamber of commerce, the Center City Commission, the city council, and the county commission. According to all concerned -- and TDOT -- portions of I-240 will be widened anyway.
"It's not an either/or situation; we need both corridors," says Muller. "If you don't do the western alignment, all you get is traffic and air quality with no road. You wouldn't have the connection. What we're looking for is a win-win for everyone."
Mississippi's Barnwell agrees. "In the Millington area, I think something needs to be done up there too, whether it is called I-69 or not," he says. "From a practical standpoint, all of these roads probably need to be scrutinized and built."
So it seems inevitable that I-240 through Midtown will be widened and that the outer loop through Collierville will be constructed -- despite objections.
"Whether it's called I-69 or I-240, the widening of I-240 will take place before the I-69 issue is solved," predicts Baker. "The more property-owners voice their opinions individually and collectively before the designs are complete, the more impact they can have on the design."
But from a public-utility standpoint, most agree that it will be convenient to hop on State Route 385 and travel from Millington to Hernando, Mississippi, relatively unencumbered -- and in half the time it now takes. Likewise, a widened I-240 corridor would theoretically mean less congestion, and another major interstate would only improve Memphis' position as a transportation hub -- in Shelby County mayor Jim Rout's words, taking Memphis from being "America's Distribution Center" to being "North America's Distribution Center."
"I look at this as the national model. It's an important national issue," says Muller. "This route has the highest percent of cost/benefit of any corridor in the country because of all the industries located along it. We knew from the start that this was a long-term effort. Now we're at the point where we have to choose an alignment."