The plan to build a north-south road through Shelby Farms is a little like start-and-stop traffic. First, county leaders ride along with a plan, and then they suddenly slam on the brakes and reconsider everything. When they think they've got it all figured out, they hit the gas and roll on with the plan until everything comes to a screeching halt once more.
Now a plan for the road is back under consideration, but Friends of Shelby Farms Park (FOSFP) is fighting to get the county to recognize an alternate route. However, a planned city project that stretches from I-240 to the Wolf River at Walnut Grove may keep their alternative from ever seeing the light of day.
The county is currently backing "Plan B," a six-lane, north-south freeway with a 55 to 60 mph speed limit, which will intersect with Walnut Grove near the middle of the park. FOSFP argues that Plan B will split Shelby Farms, taking with it prime land -- now a soybean field -- that could otherwise be used for recreation.
"We call it the field of dreams. You can't look at it and say, It's just a soybean field," says Laura Adams, president of FOSFP. "You have to look at it and say, It's the front door to the park."
The Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) recently criticized the Plan B project for not being "context sensitive." The county is currently working with Palmer Engineering on redesigning Plan B in a more environmentally friendly manner, and they say they'll consider alternatives that fall somewhere between Patriot Lake and the Lucius Burch Natural Area. FOSFP has hired Walter Kulash, an environmental engineer, to design a road that could pull as much traffic through the area as Plan B would but with a reworked route and at a slower driving speed.
The result: a road with a 35 to 40 mph driving speed that turns north near the natural area and runs past Area 10, where the prison and county office buildings are located. It eventually connects with Sycamore View and Whitten Road. The road runs much farther west than the county's plan and saves the heart of the park from being paved.
It sounds like a viable alternative, but the city plans to widen the Walnut Grove bridge over the Wolf River, making a north-south route farther west nearly impossible.
The bridge would be widened from four lanes to 10 lanes, making it 252 feet wide. It's currently 52 feet. The width of the merge ramps on the east end of the bridge could present a problem for FOSFP's alternative plan.
"The plan for the road through Shelby Farms will be de facto decided when they widen the bridge crossing the Wolf River, so that's what we're putting the most pressure on now," Adams says.
The merge lanes for the proposed bridge will extend 1,900 feet into the park, Adams explains. "That will predetermine the placement of a north-south road and precludes us from being able to move the road west."
Bidding on the Wolf River bridge project is set to start in July. Adams says her group has been talking to the City Council, city and county mayors, TDOT, and county commissioners about the situation, but at this point, the project is still on.
The city has compromised by adding bike and pedestrian pathways to the bridge and by using materials that will make the bridge blend better with the environment. However, the city has only agreed to reduce the merge tapers east of the bridge by 300 feet.
City engineer Wain Gaskin says the merge ramps are necessary for a Walnut Grove widening project, which would add several new lanes to the stretch from the bridge to Germantown Parkway. That project is in the Metropolitan Planning Organization's Long-Range Transportation Plan, which is tentatively set for 2026.
"The bridge structure itself is fixed and in place," says Gaskin. "They keep saying you could tweak it a little bit, but you can't tweak a bridge design. If there are some superficial modifications that can be made to it, we would certainly entertain implementing those."
But Adams insists that the plan needs to be reworked.
"If they say it's impossible to shorten the merge ramps because of the current design of the bridge, then they're going to have to look at redesigning the bridge," she says. "They need to effect changes to make it more park-sensitive."
Friends of Shelby Farms Park will host a public forum on Wednesday, April 21st, at the Central Library (3030 Poplar) from 7 to 9 p.m.