A bicycle and pedestrian project that would connect Tennessee and Arkansas has hit a speed bump.
The Downtown Memphis Commission is asking the city to invest $2 million toward the Harahan Bridge Project, which if fully funded, would connect downtown Memphis to downtown West Memphis over the Harahan Bridge. But Memphis City Council Chairman Jim Strickland wants that money to be used for basic city services, such as street repaving, instead.
Right now, the cost for the Harahan Bridge Project, also known as the Main to Main Multi Modal Connector Project, is still undetermined while the organizations wait for bids, which are supposed to come in during the summer. While project leaders are waiting for a more cost-effective design, the current estimate of the project sits around $30 million.
Almost $15 million has been approved from federal funds with the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (or TIGER IV) program. The project also has $2 million funded from the private sector, while $3.8 million has been dedicated from Arkansas and Tennessee government agencies for their respective sides of the project. Shelby County has committed $1 million to the project, and the city of Memphis contributed $500,000 early on. But the Memphis City Council is still debating whether the city will fund the additional $2 million.
"If we don't get the funding for the project, we won't start the project," said Paul Morris, president of the Downtown Memphis Commission. "The mayor made that very clear. No loans, cash secured."
The one-mile bridge currently only runs freight along its tracks, but a multi-purpose path would be placed next to it, utilizing the existing "wagonway" structure that was used in the early 20th century.
Morris said the project is about recycling, not starting anew, and maintaining what the city already has.
"We've been searching as an organization for years for funding to do basic things like fix the sidewalks, curbs, and gutters," Morris said. "Right now, if you walk along the Main Street Mall, you have boards covering drainage ditches that don't work. It's embarrassing. For years, the city has never been able to prioritize that because of the lack of funding and all the budget problems we have."
Strickland said because the city is in a "budget crisis," Memphis needs to make tough decisions.
"A lot of good things, in my opinion, should not get funded. We need fewer big projects because we can't afford them," Strickland said. "A couple of years ago, when we appropriated [around] $500,000 for the Harahan Bridge, we were told that's all that we would need, and then they come with a request for $2 million."
According to Strickland, the money being requested for the project could go instead toward other city services.
"It would be a wonderful amenity to have, but we have some real budget problems," Strickland said. "When you don't have enough money to do everything, you have to prioritize. To me, repaving is an absolute need. In our operating budget, we're $15 million per year in debt on our pensions. We can't pay for testing all the rape kits. Both of which are needs."
Strickland made a motion in last week's council meeting to divert the $2 million funding for the Harahan Bridge Project and put it toward street repaving, but Mayor A C Wharton asked to give a presentation about the project during the next city council session.