I-69 Is Coming 

The proposed new interstate highway has already begun to divide the city.

I-69, the proposed superhighway that will link Canada and Mexico, will pass through Shelby County. This much we know. Whether it will pass through Memphis along I-240 between Midtown and downtown or through the county along Route 385 has yet to be determined.

Though I-69 is not expected to be finished until the end of the decade, the highway's route has already become an issue among some Shelby Countians.

Jerry Palazolo, a Midtowner, says it's important for I-69 to be near Memphis, but he objects to the highway running through the heart of the city. Palazolo contends it will result in more noise, pollution, and congestion in an area that's already saturated with the effects of highway traffic.

But some environmentalists say the road will have a negative impact no matter which route it takes. "The environment will be damned either way they go," says Scott Banbury of the Sierra Club. "Bringing so many new trucks per day through town will impact air quality, and taking it through the county will destroy wetlands and lead to more sprawl."

Banbury says the Sierra Club opposes the project entirely. They feel the money would be better spent encouraging barge and rail traffic and improving public transportation. By the time the road is completed, Banbury says, limited oil reserves could make moving goods by truck much more expensive.

Dennis Cook, assistant chief engineer of planning and development for the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT), says I-69 is in the national interest and will spur the local economy. The project is right on schedule, he says, adding that official public meetings will begin next spring and the first draft of the project's environmental study should be ready by fall 2002.

While TDOT officials will consider the road's impact on air quality and the landscape, Cook says I-69 must happen for the economic good of the nation. "I-69 is the NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement] route," Cook says. "And because of the impact on international trade, and other economic benefits, we are going forward with it." He says public input serves to raise issues planners might have otherwise missed.

Millions more transportation dollars will come to the Mid-South thanks to recently passed federal legislation, Cook says. Startup funds have been assigned for a bus and rail terminal, a runway extension at the airport, and a new bridge over the Mississippi. The city will also receive $36 million for its public transit system, plus $19 million to extend the trolley into the Medical Center. Mississippi will get money to reroute Highway 304 to link up 64 and I-55 as part of the I-69 project.

Supporters of I-69 point out that many major cities have two interstate loops. But opponents say metro areas with two loops, like Atlanta, have experienced dramatic unchecked growth, leading to a significant loss of tree cover and crippling traffic jams.

Banbury fears the suburban loop will also take warehouse jobs from the city and open up more wetlands to development. The Loosahatchie River bottoms would likely be bisected by the 385 route. And taking the road through the city will only increase the city's air pollution problems, Banbury says.

How bad are Memphis' pollution problems? Diane Arnst, the technical manager of the pollution control section for the Memphis/Shelby County Health Department, says the region is in compliance with most federal air-quality regulations. But she says we wouldn't meet new standards (currently being evaluated in the courts) on ozone, and the county would be borderline with regard to fine particulate matter -- pollution indexes that are worsened by automobile traffic. Arnst says each major road-building project must be evaluated before it's approved. "[Projects] cannot prevent attainment or maintenance of the national air-quality standards," she adds.

Others say it's too soon to make a judgment on I-69's environmental impact. Carter Gray, an administrator of regional services for the Department of Planning and Development, says that though total automobile miles traveled in Shelby County are increasing by 4 percent a year, cars are running cleaner. "If tier-two gasoline is made the standard," he adds, "the resulting decrease in emissions would be like taking a third of the county's cars off the road."

Gray says opponents should look at the environmental impact of the entire transportation system rather than one road. "All this new traffic has got to come from somewhere," he says. "[I-69] could reduce traffic in one place and bring it to another. And if it makes travel time quicker, with less congestion and waiting for red lights, then that's an environmental boon."

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