July/August 2015 Magazine

Road Block

Road construction
Rob Moritz
Written by Rob Moritz

July/August 2015 Issue

The ongoing construction of the Interstate 40/55 interchange at West Memphis has been a combination of projects that caused a consistent traffic nightmare for 15 years. Just as the project is largely wrapping up, the Tennessee Department of Transportation announced more I-55 construction.

Photograph courtesy of Arkansas State Highway
and Transportation department

 

The never-ending traffic nightmare that has haunted travelers through the city of West Memphis for years is about to come to an end.

Or is it?

With about 57,000 vehicles per day, the Interstate 40/55 interchange at West Memphis is one of the busiest in the country. Truckers know it as “the crossroads of America,” and it holds the distinction of being at or near the top nationally every year in diesel sales. It is also one of just two places in the United States where two interstates have significant overlap — the other being near the Port of Los Angeles.

Stretching 964 miles from near New Orleans to Chicago, I-55 crosses into West Memphis by bridge south of Memphis, just north of the Tennessee-Mississippi line. The interstate then cuts north and intersects with I-40 for about two miles before heading into Missouri and then Illinois. I-40 runs 2,554 miles east to west across the United States from Wilmington, North Carolina to Barstow, California.

“Just the whole I-40/55 area is a transportation hub,” said Shannon Newton, president of the Arkansas Trucking Association. “It’s a north-south-east-west interchange right in the middle of the country.”

The corridor between the I-40/55 interchange east to the I-40/Hernando DeSoto Bridge over the Mississippi River at Memphis is vital for tourists and national freight distribution, with Memphis serving as a major logistical hub in the nation’s center, Newton said. Along with big rigs and cars crisscrossing the area, the interchange is just west of the Mississippi River and the Port of Memphis, the fourth-largest inland river port in the country, in addition to major railroad terminals. The Memphis International Airport, one of the largest cargo airports in the nation and home to FedEx Air, is just 20 minutes away, and West Memphis is a hub for FedEx Ground.

And while that corridor is vital, it also has become notorious for congestion caused by nigh-eternal construction. Since 2000, virtually every vehicle passing through the crossroads of America has had to slow down or even stop because of bridge, interstate or overpass work. There are high school students in West Memphis who have never seen the interchange without a sea of orange construction barrels.

Now finally, after 15 very long years, there is light at the end of the tunnel for West Memphis and all the travelers and big-rig drivers. This summer, the perpetual construction projects are to be completed.

“Some of the entrance ramps are starting to open, and some construction cones are being taken away,” Jim Jackson, director of tourism for the city of West Memphis, said with obvious relief.

To commemorate the historic event, the city is planning a summer celebration to tell the region the good news and encourage those who might have been put off by the construction to return. “We are actually going to have a kickoff in July or early August, when the barrels are removed, to remind all the downtown Memphis shoppers, our neighbors, that the interstate is open, [so] come on over,” said Ward Wimbish, director of economic development for the city of West Memphis.

West Memphis needs to enjoy construction-free status while it can. The Tennessee Department of Transportation announced in May a major project that will result in bumper-to-bumper traffic and major delays because it includes closing the I-55 bridge between West Memphis and Memphis for at least nine months beginning in 2017.

Orange Barrels

 

Roll Out The Barrels

The never-ending construction at I-40 and I-55 in West Memphis has actually been three overlapping projects of various sizes and durations.

“As far as I can recall, that’s been going on for as long as I’ve been driving, so 20 years,” said one Little Rock-area man, who regularly drives through that area of Arkansas.

Jackson, the West Memphis tourism director, called the timing of various projects “a perfect storm” that has hurt the city’s image. “They have been a big pain for us.”

The first project, to retrofit the I-40-bridge to withstand a magnitude-7 earthquake, began in 2000 and has cost $260 million, said Nichole Lawrence, a spokesman for the TDOT. That massive undertaking was divided into nine phases, and work on the 42-year-old bridge is expected to be completed mid-summer. Tennessee is paying 60 percent of the seismic retrofit, with Arkansas paying the balance.

The seismic retrofits are needed because the bridge is located in the New Madrid fault zone, which runs from Cairo at the southern tip of Illinois through New Madrid in the bootheel of Missouri to Blytheville and Marked Tree in northeast Arkansas, and spreads into western Kentucky and Tennessee. A series of earthquakes along the fault in 1811-12 were among the strongest in recorded U.S. history, and witnesses to one of the quakes reported that the Mississippi River flowed backward.

Lawrence said the retrofits are designed to keep the Hernando DeSoto Bridge standing if or when the region experiences another significant earthquake.

“The bridge is a vital part of the Midsouth and supports a tremendous flow of freight, as well as commuters on a national level,” Lawrence said. “Even on the local side, Memphis is a major freight center including the homes of FedEx, Memphis International Airport, Port of Memphis, five Class I railroads and many intermodal freight facilities. It has been estimated that the loss of this structure would have a $4.5 billion impact on the economy for this portion of the country.”

In 2008, eight years after the bridge project began, the Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department entered into a $3.7 million project with Olympus Construction Co. of Jonesboro to build a new welcome center near West Memphis.

AHTD Director Scott Bennett said the location of the new welcome center, off westbound I-40 near Southland Park Gaming and Racing, was a good one, but getting to it from I-40 and I-55 was difficult. “As far as exposure goes, it was in a very good spot … but as far as congestion, that was one of the worst spots, and it had to be fixed so people could actually come from I-55 from the south, be able to get over and take an exit and get to the welcome center, and then get on to the frontage road and be able to slow down in time to get to the welcome center.”

Construction of the welcome center was completed in 2010.

The third and final project began in 2013 when AHTD entered into a $32.12 million contract to not only improve the I-40/55 interchange, but also to add a new ramp and modify existing ramps at the interchange for access to the welcome center, repair six bridges on the section between Arkansas 77 and I-55 at West Memphis, and resurface the two miles of pavement that I-40 and I-55 share.

Like the I-40 bridge retrofit, that project is to be completed mid-summer.

“There has been construction over there for a long, long time, but it hasn’t all been at the same time,” Bennett said. “It hasn’t always required for a lane to be closed, or lane widths to be reduced, but I think it does make people feel like the West Memphis area is never going to be taken care of.”

 

West Memphis Retail Growth

Despite the ongoing construction delays, West Memphis has enjoyed something of a retail revival thanks to renewed interest in residential living in downtown Memphis.

The opening of the FedExForum in 2004 for the Memphis Grizzlies NBA team led to dramatic changes in downtown real estate patterns, according to Wimbish, the economic developer for West Memphis. “People either wanted to live there or wanted to have a sports bar there. All the retail was squeezed out,” he said.

Phone surveys revealed that many of the new residents of downtown Memphis prefer to cross the river to West Memphis “for their immediate needs” — to shop at Wal-Mart, Kroger, Walgreens and to fuel up, Wimbish said.

As the city was planning in the spring for the mid-summer party commemorating the end of the various construction projects, in late May, the Tennessee Department of Transportation dropped its bombshell: reconstruction of the I-55 interchange at
E.H. Crump Boulevard in Memphis.

“If you’ve been to Memphis lately, once you cross the bridge there is no place to buy gasoline. They don’t have a convenience store until you get all the way over to I-40 headed to Nashville, and if you take the loop, you’ve got to go a long ways.”

The survey also found that many more said they would shop across the river if construction on the I-40 bridge and the I-40/55 interchange weren’t such a problem. “Many hesitate to come here, and they say it’s because of construction,” Wimbish said.

(They won’t save money except on groceries. The sales tax in Memphis is 9.25 percent — 7 percent for the state and 2.25 percent local, while the total in West Memphis is 9.75 percent — 6.5 percent state, 1.75 percent for Crittenden County and 1.5 percent for the city. State and federal gasoline taxes in Tennessee total 39.8 cents per gallon, while the total in Arkansas is 40.2 cents. Both have reduced state sales taxes on groceries, but Arkansas’ is 1.5 percent while Tennessee’s is 5 percent.)

When promoting the city to new residents or new businesses, Wimbish said a number of positives are stressed, including that it’s a 10-minute shorter trip from West Memphis to the Memphis International Airport by way of the I-55 bridge, rather than using the I-40 bridge. And, a business can add as much as five hours to the daily deadline for shipping FedEx packages by air because the deadline across the nation is 6 p.m., but if the packages are taken directly to the Memphis airport the deadline is 11 p.m.

“We love our interstates. That’s our lifeline, and we’ve got to take care of them,” Wimbish said. “Yes, we know we have to have them function well, and we’re looking forward to all the benefits of the work being done.”

As the city was planning in the spring for the mid-summer party commemorating the end of the various construction projects, in late May, TDOT dropped its bombshell: reconstruction of the I-55 interchange at E.H. Crump Boulevard in Memphis. Work is to begin in spring 2016 and will require closure of the I-55 bridge for about nine months beginning in spring 2017.

“There is simply not enough space to rebuild this interchange, preserve the French Fort neighborhood and maintain traffic across the I-55 bridge,” TDOT Commissioner John Schroer said in a news release announcing the project. “As we prepare for a full closure of this section of interstate, TDOT will do everything possible to minimize the impact to residents, business owners, commuters and emergency services.”

Wimbish said the city has expressed its opposition to the closing of the I-55 bridge because it will put twice as much traffic onto the I-40 bridge, which will mean a return to congestion and slow traffic — albeit without the orange barrels.

“We really do have issues with the I-55 bridge being closed,” he said. “With two bridges, it eases any kind of congestion that happens … but if you’re going to double — or more than double — the traffic on the I-40 bridge, there’s no telling what can happen. All it takes is a flat tire and everyone has to slow down. Everyone is going to be leaving earlier to get across the bridge to Memphis.”

Wimbish said the city of West Memphis understands that rebuilding the interchange at the base of the I-55 bridge in Memphis is important. “We all want the interchange over there to be fixed; we’re not against the project. We realize it’s important because having a smooth connection to the Memphis International Airport is important for us as well.”

The main concern, he said, is that people who normally cross the I-55 bridge to shop in West Memphis might find an alternative shopping spot and not return when the bridge is re-opened.

“People are maybe going to find an alternative once the bridge is closed, and there is no guarantee that we’re going to get them back,” he said. “This doesn’t do anything for our reputation because people view us as always having travel issues because that’s what people remember.”

 

About the author

Rob Moritz

Rob Moritz

Rob Moritz is a veteran journalist who has worked at newspapers in Arkansas, Texas, and Tennessee. He teaches journalism at the University of Central Arkansas. Born in Kingston, Jamaica, he spent much of his youth in the South American country of Suriname and in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It was in the Steel City that he became a diehard fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Steelers. Moritz is married and has two sons.

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