Memphis Backlog of Uncompleted Road Projects Nears $1 Billion
By Wayne Risher for The Commercial Appeal
Shopping in big box retailers or online, there’s a good chance Memphis consumers will find their purchase traveled through one of the city’s most congested corridors, Lamar Avenue.
Logistics provider Dunavant put its Memphis terminal there for the same reason Gov. Bill Haslam used it as a backdrop to highlight the need for new funding for Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) projects.
Dunavant had to be there because virtually everyone else is there -- railroads, warehouses, trucking companies -- and the Memphis-grown company wasn’t discouraged at the prospect of trucks sitting in traffic at peak times of day.
“We just opened a terminal off Shelby Drive (at 5176 East Holmes), where Lamar connects,” Dunavant chief operating officer Richard McDuffie said. “We’re very keyed into that traffic pattern down there. We’re for anything to get that traffic moving in a more effective way.”
The Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad Memphis intermodal gateway dominates one side of Lamar from Perkins to Shelby Drive. Giant cranes unload shipping containers filled with products headed for big retail stores like Wal-Mart and Target.
Haslam recently stood on BNSF property with traffic roaring in the background and talked about the state’s $6 billion backlog of transportation projects, including at least $934 million that touch Shelby County. Haslam said he wants to work with lawmakers to come up with a plan to fix the issue before he leaves office in 2018. Not included in the backlog are a proposed third Mississippi River bridge and nearly $35 million in newly identified needs, mostly bridge replacements on state routes.
State and federal revenue from gasoline and diesel taxes have stagnated because of dramatic improvements in fuel economy both for passenger vehicles and commercial trucks. The state’s 21.4 cents a gallon gas tax dates to 1989, and the federal tax, 18.4 cents a gallon, hasn’t gone up since 1993.
While Shelby’s backlogged projects are all over the map, transportation and logistics industry experts listed Lamar’s $229 million fix as the No. 1 thing that would help move freight through and within Memphis.
“Of the top priorities we’ve had, Lamar Avenue continues to come to the top almost all the time,” said Dexter Muller, a senior advisor for the Greater Memphis Chamber. “It’s a high traffic location, and it’s highly congested. It’s serving 70 plus million square feet of industrial space. It’s also right there where the Burlington Northern is, which is important to us to keep those customers down there to support the BNSF.”
Dan Pallme, senior associate director of the Intermodal Freight Transportation Institute at University of Memphis, said Lamar’s service level suffers because of competing demands of passenger vehicles and trucks, but the solution is so costly that it’s slow in coming.
“Obviously the Lamar corridor is primarily F-rated at a majority of times people try to travel. TDOT has a plan. It’s in the long-range vision. The problem is it costs a huge amount of money. (But) the longer we wait, the harder it is for Memphis to get caught up, so to speak,” Pallme said.
Given resistance in Nashville and Washington to raising fuel taxes, Haslam’s approach makes sense, Pallme said. “I think it’s a great strategy. I think fundamentally, if we’re using the highway tax, which was built to be infrastructure related, it only makes sense to increase the gas tax. Saying that, it is a political year. It seems like it’s always a political year and people are running for office and nobody wants any new taxes so it’s still a highly contested subject of how we’re going to pay for it.”
Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, said talk of a gas tax increase is premature.
“There hasn’t been enough time devoted to developing a consensus, if one can be developed,” Norris said. “The timing’s wrong because we are still slowly recovering from the Great Recession.”
Norris supports the governor’s focus on projects rather than revenue sources, and he credited Haslam for tackling an issue that’s going to have its main impact after Haslam leaves office.
Competing interests across the state will determine how quickly the Lamar project gets done, Norris said, but “if i could have anything to say about it, it would be a more compressed schedule.”
“The real issue is if you don’t do anything, what’s going to happen,” Pallme said. “If you look at other communities that stay ahead of the game, if they invest in their infrastructure, the next thing you know, they pass Memphis. That means no new companies coming into town. It means workforce development issues.”
In fact, a 2014 Brookings Institution study found that Memphis led the nation’s largest 100 metro areas with 17 percent of 2013 total employment in infrastructure-intensive categories. That translated into more than 100,000 jobs in trucking, material handling, truck mechanics and similar occupations, and Brookings said such jobs were expected to grow 9.1 percent in the next decade.
Problems with Lamar and other backlogged projects locally are by no means unique to Memphis. Memphis Mayor A C Wharton joined 73 mayors nationally last week to urge more federal investment to combat a $900 billion backlog in the nation’s D-rated infrastructure. Congress has been debating funding for highways and mass transit, with Democrats pushing for fuel tax increases.
Beyond the Lamar corridor, a proposed $43 million revamp of the Airways-I-240 interchange and projects related to I-69, the so-called NAFTA Highway stretching from Mexico to Canada, are seen as key projects to Memphis area freight movement.
“Lamar would rank up there extremely high, but then anything to take pressure off Interstate 40 within 40 to 50 miles of Memphis is extremely important,” McDuffie said.
I-240/Airways is critical as a gateway to Memphis International Airport and the FedEx world hub. “That’s the gateway into the largest economic generator in the state,” Muller said.
TDOT’s Shelby backlog is dwarfed by an estimated $1.5 billion pricetag of a third Mississippi River bridge.
The third bridge and I-69 are considered as much national as local in significance, and Memphis chamber officials argue they should receive a larger proportion of federal support for that reason.
“That’s not a project the state should have to fund,” Muller said, noting that the nation would suffer a massive economic loss if Memphis area bridges were knocked out by a calamity like an earthquake.
Projects related to I-69 account for $423 million of the TDOT backlog: $50 million to extend I-69 along the I-240 Midtown leg and $373 million to buy right of way and build the road paralleling U.S. 51 from Frayser into Tipton County.
Muller said I-69 would serve 40 percent of U.S. manufacturing industry. “That’s a roadway of national significance. The bottom line is the states can’t do this individually. A part of the reason we’re having this problem at the state level is the federal government hasn’t stepped up.”
McDuffie, whose company has been growing across the South and East Coast, doesn’t have high hopes for a political solution.
“There’s just infrastructure after infrastructure issue as you go around the Southeast and up the East Coast as far as the ports,” McDuffie said. “It’s extremely important that Washington figures out a way to solve it. I know they’re trying to balance the budget, but the infrastructure in this country has got to improve, and they’ve got to fund it. As to where the answers come from, I don’t know.”
Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) Shelby County projects approved by the Tennessee General Assembly and currently under development:
I-69, $373.9 million (including Shelby-Tipton segments)
U.S. 78 (Lamar), $229.1 million
Tennessee 14 (Austin Peay), $75.4 million
I-40, Germantown Road to Collierville-Arlington, $65.1 million
Summer Avenue, I-40 to Elmore, $62.3 million
I-240, I-55 to I-40 Midtown, $50 million
I-240/Airways interchange, $43 million
Poplar Avenue, Norfolk Southern bridges at I-240, $20 million
U.S. 51 (Elvis Presley Boulevard), Craft to Shelby Drive, $15.5 million
TDOT’s Shelby County project needs identified, not currently under development
U.S. 70/79 bridge, Clear Creek, $2.7 million
Jackson Avenue bridge, Harrison Creek, $3.2 million
Thomas Street bridge, overflow, $$6.6 million
Thomas Street bridge, CN Railroad, $3.5 million
Lamar Avenue bridge, ramps from I-240 and State Route 4, $3.3 million
Poplar Avenue bridge, Cypress Creek, $2.1 million
I-269, intelligent transportation systems expansion, $9 million
Tennessee 385, intelligent transportation systems expansion, $4 million