Last Friday, the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) announced that it would delay its planned closure of the I-55 "Old Bridge" over the Mississippi River for at least a year while it conducted "further studies" on the economic impact of the project.
"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," TDOT Commissioner John Schroer said. "We want to take the opportunity to address those concerns before moving forward with construction." In other words, back to the drawing board.
I don't want to say there were a couple high-fives given in the Flyer office, but we were pretty pleased that our efforts to raise civic consciousness on this ill-advised plan bore some fruit. Reporter Toby Sells covered the project extensively, and we vigorously editorialized against it. The Commercial Appeal, on the other hand, editorialized in support of the closure project and ran a couple of soft, pro-TDOT articles.
Mayor A C Wharton was also seemingly clueless about the project's potential to devastate the local economy, offering tepid, boilerplate support for TDOT's bridge closure plan.
Whoever the next mayor is, whether it's Wharton or one of the candidates running against him, it's essential that he get actively involved in helping to ensure that this TDOT project has as small a negative impact as possible on our tourism business, our transportation and distribution industry, and the booming Bass Pro Pyramid. Memphis business and political leaders need to be proactive and not let Nashville bureaucrats determine our future. They need to join with officials on the Arkansas side — who should get most of the credit for stopping the closure plan — and begin working with TDOT to craft the least painful alternative.
To that end, easy access to downtown (and Bass Pro) via northbound I-55 to Riverside is critical. That means the proposed "roundabout" also has to be off the table. Replacing a free-flowing four-lane entrance to (and exit from) the city with an intersection that forces all north-south traffic to interact with Crump Boulevard traffic heading onto and off the bridge is not progress.
But for now, we're content to enjoy a victorious first step — stopping what TDOT officials said less than a month ago was the absolute "final plan." No further changes were possible, they said. In response to which, I'm happy to quote Arkansas state Senator Keith Ingram, who said, prophetically: "TDOT probably didn't think the Overton Park expressway was going to be stopped, either."