When Big River Crossing is in the news, you can bet someone in Memphis will, again, call it the "bridge to nowhere."
Construction began on the project last week, and officials said it will open in the spring or summer of 2016.
Big River Crossing is the $17.5 million project that will transform part of the Harahan Bridge over the Mississippi River into a path for bicyclists and pedestrians. The Crossing is part of the 10-mile, $43 million Main Street to Main Street Multi-Modal Connector project that will create bike paths and walkways from Uptown Memphis to West Memphis, Arkansas.
Calling the Crossing a "bridge to nowhere" is a two-sided insult. On one side, the slur means the Crossing is a boondoggle, a costly and unnecessary government infrastructure project. The other side is aimed directly at West Memphis. That the bike and pedestrian walkway will lead Memphians there implies that the small Arkansas town is "nowhere" or that there's nothing for bikers or pedestrians to do when they get there.
"We obviously know those comments," said Jim Jackson, director of the West Memphis Office of Tourism. "We want to, and are working on, dispelling any of those."
Plans have been developed for an eco-park on the West Memphis side of the Crossing. The park would span the area between the bridges at I-55 and I-40, Jackson said. The plans feature a wildlife refuge, education spaces, trails along the river's edge, and farming exhibits. If that's not enough of a draw, Jackson is banking on at least one thing West Memphis has that Memphis doesn't.
"Everyone in Memphis can look toward us and see ... a bean field," Jackson said. "From our perspective looking back ... it is a phenomenal view, looking at the Memphis skyline."
He said West Memphis and Arkansas are committed to making the Crossing a major attraction and pointed to Little Rock's Big Dam Bridge, the longest bridge built for pedestrian and bicycle traffic in North America. But, he said, projects take money, and West Memphis and state officials are hard at work to find it for the Crossing.
Meanwhile, cyclists are already riding the levee tops around West Memphis along the Big River Parkway. That project's backers want to open the Mississippi River levees up to bikers on a 660-mile trail from Memphis to New Orleans.
National Geographic is working with those in the Big River Strategic Initiative to brand the parkway as a National Geographic geotourism destination. The society's Center for Sustainable Destinations serves as a tour guide for people looking to travel to natural spaces. It has worked in the past with places like Greater Yellowstone, California's Redwood Coast, and the East Tennessee River Valley.
Back in July, board members of the St. Francis Levee District of Arkansas unanimously approved bikers on their 63-mile segment of the levee system. Bicyclists hit the trail in August on the first ever Big River Parkway Levee Ride that ran from West Memphis all the way to Marianna, Arkansas.