MPO continues opposition to I-55 bridge closure

No acceptable option presented, say local officials

By John Rech news@theeveningtimes.com

Just say no. That is what the Metropolitan Planning Organization just told TDOT about closing the Memphis and Arkansas Bridge for the Crump Boulevard roundabout and Interstate 55 interchange construction project. The mayors of both West Memphis and Marion were asked by letter to provide input regarding the economic impact of the project. Marion Mayor Frank Fogleman sits on the MPO and West Memphis Mayor Bill Johnson is the chairman. Last June TDOT representatives including Commissioner John Shoer met with local officials and promised to reconsider options. One option presented at the at meeting, which state congressional delegation attended, kept the bridge open and saved $50 million on the project. According to MPO Study Director Eddie Brawley, TDOT promised to reconsider. “I never heard back from them,” said Brawley. TDOT ultimately said pick your poison. Option one was revised from five years to now six years with one lane each way and no trucking. The second plan paved way for a three year project with traffic shutdown completely for nine months with all I-55 traffic diverted to I-40. TDOT now needs the input to consider the economic ramifications as part of the required environmental impact study for the revised construction project option. But, Brawley pointed out that the choice is a false dilemma as long as the simplified plan presented to Shoer remains outside serious consideration by TDOT. “They stretched it another year to try and get the impact study to show the relative benefit of a full closure,” said Brawley. “But it’s not the only option we have. We are trying to get them to take a look at the alternative we’ve presented. It’s a cheaper faster alternative for the southbound lanes which is where the problem is right now.” The letter re-proposed the simplified design saying the existing proposal was over built for the traffic the bridge can handle and touted the option that leaves the bridge open with minimal traffic interruptions while offering a much smaller construction bill. It emphasized the importance of the decision as especially “critical to the national freight corridor” and the possible saving $50 million dollars. “The Policy Committee voted to reject both alternatives as unsatisfactory and requested that TDOT and FHWA compare the economic impact and cost/benefit of the recommendations,” said the letter to TDOT from the MPO. Brawley said the community represented well at the MPO meeting with three representatives from Southland Gaming and Racing. West Memphis Airport Manager Lynda Avery also presented a just say no letter for TDOT through the MPO. “We didn’t choose one option over the other,” reported Avery to the February Airport Commission meeting. “We are not going to look like we are approving one option over the other. Apparently they’ve already decided on the construction project which will be a roundabout. Neither of those (shutdown options) are acceptable to business operations on these side of the river. We’ve submitted it and have heard nothing yet. Seriously I don’t anticipate them changing plans.” The airport is a rendezvous point for air ambulances services serving the Memphis hospital district and a home base to many clients around the mid-south. During the recently completed Interchange construction air ambulance companies suspended service through West Memphis. Avery said signs of economic impact were already seen with speculation over I-55 bridge closure. Some plane owners are planning to go elsewhere during the construction and one pilot already has already flown the coop. “Of the 132 base customers we have here only 18 are from Crittenden County,” said Avery. “The rest are from North Mississippi and Shelby County. We’ve already had one that left us to base in Memphis.”

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