A Bridge Too Far 


The Tennessee Department of Transportation announced last week that the I-55 "old bridge" across the Mississippi would be closed for nine months, beginning in 2017, so that the department could build new exit and entrance ramps. This is a really horrible idea, with potentially disastrous economic, public safety, and even national security ramifications. West Memphis is already really upset about the plan. In Memphis, not so much, not yet, anyway.

This must change, people. Attention must be paid to this.

During the nine months TDOT is planning to close the bridge (and we know all highway projects are always finished on time), all north/south traffic on I-55 and all east/west traffic on I-40 will be funneled across the the Hernando DeSoto "M Bridge."

Using TDOT's 2013 AADT (Annual Average Daily Traffic) numbers, the I-55 bridge is traversed by 55,829 vehicles a day. The I-40 M Bridge is crossed by 55,630 vehicles a day. So, the plan, if you can call it that, will double the number of vehicles crossing the M Bridge every day. In addition, I-240, which runs through the center of the city, will become the main conduit for I-55 traffic to get to and from the M Bridge. The current AADT number for I-240 is 97,292 vehicles a day, much of it local and commuter. Let's add another 55,000 vehicles, many of them 18-wheelers, to that number, shall we? Good times.

But here's the real crux of the matter: Closing the I-55 bridge is not a decision that should be made by a Tennessee state agency with a vested interest in new construction projects. This project affects three states and two vital national interstates. An earthquake, a barge accident, or God forbid, a terrorist attack on the M bridge, and the transportation system for the central U.S. would melt down. To cross the Mississippi River, you'd have to funnel hundreds of thousands of vehicles to Dyersburg or Helena, Arkansas, a night-marish scenario. (Not to mention the difficulty of getting over to Pancho's for happy hour and cheese dip.)

Even if there is no major disaster, Memphians will be royally screwed by this plan. You think commuting from Southaven or Cordova or Collierville is a pain now? A big wreck on the M bridge, and you may be sitting on the outer loop til lunchtime.

In St. Louis, the only other centrally located major city on the Mississippi, there are eight bridges across the river. You shut one down, it's not the end of the world. You shut down the I-55 bridge and the Mid-South will be down to one way to cross the Mississippi. That's a recipe for disaster.

If there were only one bridge now and it needed a new ramp, do you think TDOT might have figured out a way to keep it open during construction? I do. Our elected officials — local, state, and federal — in all three affected states need to get ahead of this ill-considered project before it's too late.

In 1971, Memphis activists and their lawyers stopped the federal government from building I-40 through Midtown. The combined political will of the Mid-South ought to be able to stop a state bureaucracy from this foolishness.

Not to be melodramatic or anything, but if the I-55 bridge is closed, the terrorists win. And we lose.

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