Feds award $71.2 million for Lamar Avenue corridor project
By Thomas Charlier | THE COMMERCIAL APPEAL
A highway project long considered critical to Memphis' distribution industry received a major boost Tuesday as the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded a $71.2 million grant to help fund improvements to the chronically congested Lamar Avenue corridor.
The grant, announced by U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, will fund about one-third of the estimated $205.5 million worth of work planned along a nearly 5-mile stretch of Lamar from Getwell Road to the Mississippi state line.
“This is a huge win for Memphis and will be a game-changer for our city and the region. This project has been a priority of the business and governmental communities for my entire time in Congress," Cohen, a senior member of the House Committee on Transportation as well as the Subcommittee on Highways and Transit, said in a prepared statement.
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., added, "This federal grant will support thousands of jobs—and it’ll help Memphians used to being stuck in Lamar Avenue traffic get to work on time.”
The grant came from the Transportation Department's Infrastructure for Rebuilding America program, an initiative announced last year by the Trump administration.
Lamar, which carries U.S. 78 into Memphis, is a vital route for freight traffic serving the BNSF Memphis Intermodal Facility and the many warehouses spread across a swath of the city from near Memphis International Airport to Hickory Hill. The corridor also links Memphis to the new Interstate 22 to Birmingham.
The Lamar project long has been a priority for the Tennessee Department of Transportation, but for years it was stalled by a lack of funding.
The state's passage last year of the IMPROVE Act, which included a gas tax increase to fund highway projects, provided initial momentum for the improvement effort. Separate phases of the Lamar corridor project have been targeted for funding under the act.
TDOT officials, however, said they were committed to building the Lamar improvements with or without the federal grant or the state IMPROVE Act.
"We have been committed to funding the improvements along this freight corridor for the past eight years because it is critical to not just the Memphis economy, but also to Tennessee and the U.S.," said TDOT Commissioner John Schroer.
Officials with the Greater Memphis Chamber hailed the announcement of the grant award.
“The Lamar Avenue improvements will create thousands of new jobs and significantly reduce unemployment and poverty in the region,” said Phil Trenary, president and CEO of the chamber.
“As we work on moving Memphis forward, this type of success is significant for Memphis businesses and for our recruitment and retention efforts because it further strengthens our position as the center of business in North America.”
Logistics providers view the federal grant as a source of relief for time-wasting gridlock.
“First and foremost, time is money; it’s an old but very true saying,” said Richard McDuffie, chief operating officer for Dunavant Global Logistics, which operates a truck terminal and warehousing in the corridor.
When Dunavant’s trucks and drivers are stuck in traffic, it’s delaying deliveries, wasting fuel, costing drivers money and hurting company revenues, McDuffie said.
“Any money we can get from the federal government is helpful,” McDuffie said. “It’s frustrating to me it’s taken this long, but the bottom line is we’re going to get it done.”
Memphis City Council member Patrice Robinson said the long-awaited improvements will be a huge boon for her district, which includes the southern leg of Lamar and is home to a large number of transportation and logistics facilities.
"We just need a timeline — and one they stick to," she said. "... But I'm excited for what I'll get."
Construction is set to get underway late this summer on an initial phase of the project — a 1.1-mile section from the Mississippi line to south of Shelby Drive that's expected to cost $42 million.
Next year, right-of-way acquisition will begin on a 1.8-mile segment from the Perkins/Raines road interchange north to Getwell, where $38.2 million worth of improvements are planned. And in 2021, constructed is slated to start on a 1.9-mile, $125.3 million phase from near Shelby Drive to the Raines/Perkins interchange.