Each weekday, rush hour traffic backs up along Walnut Grove and Farm Road inside Shelby Farms Park, turning part of the city's largest urban green space into a busy and congested thoroughfare.
The proposed $38 million Shelby Farms Parkway, which is currently under review by the Federal Highway Administration, would divert that traffic around the western edge of the park. But members of the local Sierra Club Chickasaw Group say they have a simpler solution that would save the city millions of dollars and solve traffic problems sooner.
The Sierra Club opposes the Shelby Farms Parkway plan because they believe it takes away too much park land and feels too much like an interstate.
Last week, the Sierra Club held a series of public rallies near Shelby Farms to bring some awareness to the alternatives, which were first proposed by national traffic engineering consultant Walter Kulash of the Center for Humans and Nature in Chicago. Kulash was invited to Memphis last year by the Sierra Club to study alternatives to Shelby Farms Parkway.
Those alternatives include: 1) building a longer left turning lane onto Farm Road from eastbound Walnut Grove, 2) building a longer left turning lane for southbound Farm Road traffic turning onto Mullins Station or adding a right turning lane, 3) creating a westbound auxiliary lane from Farm Road to Humphries, 4) extending the northbound merging lane from Farm Road to Walnut Grove, and 5) making adjustments to signal timing.
"When you are headed east on Walnut Grove and you get to Farm Road, that left turn lane is not long enough. It doesn't hold enough cars, so cars end up waiting to turn left in a lane that should be a travel lane," said Dennis Lynch, transportation chair for the state and local Sierra Club.
City engineer John Cameron said the Sierra Club's proposals may provide some short-term relief but that they would only be a "Band-Aid for the situation." He says traffic counts through the area will rise in the future and that the larger Shelby Farms Parkway project will be needed.
"If the parkway project moves forward, we don't want to put a whole lot of money into Farm Road. What the Sierra Club is proposing would cost between a half-million and a million dollars just to turn around three to five years later and take it all out," Cameron said.
Under the Shelby Farms Parkway plan, Farm Road, will be closed to through traffic and used as a pedestrian route. The Memphis City Council delayed a funding match for the parkway plan earlier this year, but Cameron said they'll be seeking funding from the council again next year. Cameron said the parkway could be fully constructed in three to five years.
Laura Morris, executive director for the Shelby Farms Park Conservancy, said the conservancy is backing the most recent parkway design, which wraps the new road around the western edge of the park. Morris says it does not "damage the park and also relieves traffic." Morris said she doesn't oppose the Sierra Club's ideas, but she doesn't believe they'll solve congestion in the future.
"We don't disagree that temporary fixes like this could relieve some of the pressure right now, but we know that won't be enough," Morris said. "It might fix today's problems but only by a small measure."
Lynch doesn't agree.
"We don't think the parkway is needed and anything that can be done to keep it from being built is a good thing," Lynch said. "I calculated that the cost to the people stuck in congestion. The value of their time plus the extra gasoline they're using over five to six years comes to $32 million to $58 million. But it would only cost the city $1 million to make the improvements."