Q&A: Ed Cole, 

Tennessee Department of Transportation chief of environment and planning

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Memphis drivers heading into Arkansas must choose to dodge the ever-present construction cones on I-40's Hernando DeSoto Bridge or narrowly squeeze past big rigs on the old I-55 bridge.

But last week, the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) announced it wanted to study the option of a third bridge between Tennessee and Arkansas. In June 2006, TDOT released a location study with several options as to where a third bridge could be constructed, including several locations outside of downtown Memphis and one location near Tunica County in Mississippi.

If the new study is approved by the state legislature, it would revisit proposed locations and look into whether or not a third bridge should include a rail system or a toll bridge. — by Bianca Phillips

Flyer: Why do we need a new bridge?

Cole: We did a location study two years ago to look at that very question. The conclusion is there is a growth in traffic on the I-40 and the I-55 bridges, and there's a need for additional capacity.

Second, in terms of the I-55 bridge, there's the whole seismic question. We're doing a big retrofit on the Hernando DeSoto Bridge. A new facility would be as earthquake-proof as a bridge could be.

Is the seismic issue also driving the need for adding rail lines to a third bridge?

The two current railroad bridges are not in any way resistant to earthquakes. They're very old bridges, and Memphis is a major intermodal hub. With those two rail bridges being the only ones there to handle all the east-west rail traffic, there's no question about the need to consider another rail crossing.

Why are you considering a toll bridge?

A toll bridge for cars and trucks could be expected to recover anywhere from 50 to 70 percent of the cost in toll collections. That's a heck of a better deal in terms of public dollars, but it means there'd still be a substantial public funding need. The minimum cost in today's dollars for a new bridge is $675 million. If you added rail, we're probably talking about a project that would cost over $1 billion in today's dollars.

Wouldn't people just use the two free bridges if the new bridge has a toll? Our tolling legislation in Tennessee, which was passed in 2007, says there always has to be a free alternative. So in terms of market forces, the only way a toll bridge would work would be if it provided something that the free bridge didn't. It would be faster, less congested, and connect in a better way. That's something this study would look at in detail.

Would the study be funded by federal stimulus money?

No. Stimulus money is only available for shovel-ready projects. The Memphis Metropolitan Planning Organization has already voted to put $5 million into the study, and our estimate is the study would cost $6 million or more. So TDOT has committed to fund that difference. The bulk of the funding will come from Memphis, which is a really good message about how important this is viewed locally.

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