Progress and Festivals Close Streets Downtown

road-closed-sign[June 3, 2019 – update: in the article below it is reported the trolleys will be staged overnight in Civic Center Plaza. Last week, an official of the Memphis Area Transit Authority said they will overnight on South Main. It is therefore unknown to this writer where they will be overnight during the street closing. It has also been learned that two more closings of Main Street will be requested for the renovation construction of the Convention Center. Dates of those closings were not immediately available from the MATA.]

May 11, 2019 – Every year, Riverside Drive is closed for parts of the month of May to accommodate Memphis in May festival events. Although government administrators seem to dislike it and repeatedly try to narrow the driving lanes and slow the speeds, Riverside drive is a major downtown north-south thoroughfare. So, when May ends and the street opens once again many are relieved that they have eleven months before the next significant road closings downtown.

Those drivers may be in for a surprise if they drive in the northern section of downtown, even if they drive those stand-up scooters, or probably even if they walk.

On June 3, 2019, a portion of Main Street is scheduled to close for six weeks while the skywalk between the Sheraton convention center hotel and the convention center is demolished and a new skywalk built. That closing of Main, from Winchester Avenue to Exchange Avenue, will cause the trolley service operated by the Memphis Area Transit Authority to stop at the temporary station in front of the convention center. Trolleys will have to stop their northward trip there and begin southbound from that spot. MATA will provide those rubber wheeled “trolley” buses to get passengers around the closed block and to the normal turn-around station at A.W. Willis Avenue and Main Street. During this phase, the trolleys will park overnight in Civic Center Plaza in front of City hall, so if you get there before they begin their daily service, you can see or get a photo of the current rolling stock of Memphis trolleys in one place.

The Main Street closure will probably have minimal affect on private automobile traffic as Main Street is a pedestrian mall south of Exchange, so it’s not a through street.

Front Street and the Interstate 40 off ramp to Front are much more traveled, however. On October 6, 2019, Front Street between Poplar Avenue and Winchester Avenue and the Interstate’s off ramp to Front Street are scheduled to be closed for eight months. Renovation of the Memphis Cook Convention Center includes new construction of meeting rooms on the west side of Front Street in the area which now is an open area underneath western part of the center, as well as changes in the street level facade on the east side of Front Street. The thoroughfare is scheduled to reopen by May 1, 2020. Yes, you got it, the plan is to reopen Front Street just in time for the annual closing of Riverside Drive for the Memphis in May events.


Those overseeing the renovation of the convention center say they know they will get complaints about the road closings, perhaps passionate complaints. It is said, however, this the cost of progress in Memphis, as they say, Memphis has momentum and they want those traveling on the streets to endure the inconvenience for the final outcome of an improved convention center and improved city.



Your choices: an unexpected swim, flattened by a train, arrested by homeland security?

We expect to complete the bridge and have it open to the public in July or August of 2014, so the bridge itself will actually be completed at that point…We’re still on schedule and we’re going to stay on schedule.
          — Mike Carpenter, Project Manager, Main Street to Main Street Multi-modal Connector Project, April, 2013

Harahan Bridge

Harahan Bridge

If you were to believe today what Mike Carpenter said 16 months ago, you likely would be in a world of trouble. While the Harahan Bridge pedestrian and bicycle path was to have been finished by this month, it has not even started construction. If you were to try to walk it, your first obstacle likely might be homeland security which is quite protective of that bridge. If you got on the bridge without being arrested and tried to walk where the “Big River Crossing” path is supposed to be, you would have to pick your way very carefully and even then you might well end up falling into the Mississippi River. A somewhat safer route might be the railroad right of way, but then both homeland security, railroad agents, and possible a locomotive would be coming at you.

A suggestion, do not try to walk across the Harahan Bridge and, regretfully, do not believe much of what you hear from government and quasi-government officials.

It is sad but one would guess not wholly unexpected that the project is this far behind, despite Carpenter’s assurances it would stay on schedule. It seems government activities often run late and more expensive than announced.

It is because the Harahan Bridge portion of the Main Street to Main Street walkway and bicycle path received bids that were millions of dollars over the initial estimates that a year after the route was promised to be open construction has not started yet. The design engineers thought it would cost something like $16.7-million. The lowest bid was closer to $21-million. So it was back to the drawing board, or probably more accurately, the computers, to redesign the bridge pathway to lessen the cost. In the meantime, Carpenter moved on to work at the Plough Foundation and Downtown Memphis Commission President Paul Morris took over the difficult job of Project Manager. Meetings with prospective contractors have been held and tomorrow, August 8, 2014, there will be an opening, not of the walkway but of the new bids.

A combination of federal, state, and local, and private dollars are being allocated for the “Main2Main” project, which was expected overall to cost $35-40-million. One of the leading private sector proponents of the effort is Charlie McVean of McVean Trading & Investments. He has flatly said that the money will be there for the construction. The project entails more than just the bridge, though that’s the major expense. It includes repaving much of the sidewalk areas from North Main Street in Memphis and creating the pedestrian and bicycle path from there to the bridge, and then a new path from the west side of the bridge in Arkansas to Broadway Boulevard/Avenue in West Memphis.

Many think this is a very cool project. It may take an extra cool million, or maybe several more cool millions of dollars to get it done. It will be very interesting to see what the price is and what we actually get for that money if the pathway is completed as planned.

(Public bid opening: August 8, 2014, 2 p.m. Memphis City Hall, Council Chambers)

Update: August 10, 2014-Two firms submitted bids for the Harahan Bridge portion of the Main Street to Main Street project on Friday, August 8. The proposal contained 3 primary alternatives and some options within those, the bidders were able to choose which alternative(s) upon which they bid. This observer does not know the specifications of the various alternatives. The base bids ranged from an apparent low of $17,469.742.10 to an apparent high of $19,362,042.04. Again, this observer does not know what flexibility the city may have, but it may be that it can select the lowest and best bid based on criteria which includes the alternative  plan it deems most desirable.
Update: August 12, 2014-Project Manager and Downtown Memphis Commission President Paul Morris says although the bids were about $4-million lower than the first round the gap between funding available at the time of the bid opening and the low bid is about $2.5-million and that construction will not begin until the gap is closed. Private donors will be asked to make up the difference, several of which have already said they stand ready to assist. He said even so it will be some time before a contract is executed as engineers and others examine the bids for validity and insure conformance with specifications. Nevertheless, Morris says while he has always been cautiously optimistic, “[F]or the first time I really think this project is going to happen.” A contract is anticipated within 90 days and construction should be complete in 18 months. Morris says he looks forward to the pedestrian and bicycle path across the bridge to be open in the spring of 2016.

Outrageous Outrage — or We Get What We Deserve

riverside-drive-medOn July 29, 2014, the City of Memphis held a public meeting at Beale Street Landing to make a presentation and receive comments about the ongoing pilot project making half of Riverside Drive a pedestrian and bicycle only path and the future use of the roadway.

About 45 people were in the audience for the meeting and many repeatedly expressed, in sometimes caustic terms, a frustration because they felt the city proceeded with the pilot project first without an opportunity for public input, taking them by surprise.

The apparent opponents of both the pilot project and any plans to continue the narrowed use of the street by motor vehicles seemed to outnumber those who voiced support. There were a number of complaints regarding safety of those driving cars and trucks on the now two lanes open to motor vehicles, about traffic congestion, about actual use of the part of the road now reserved for pedestrians and bicycles. This report is not to diminish any validity such complains may or may not have nor does it favor one proposal over another, including returning the road to its former four lane motor vehicle use or keeping its use divided.

In answer to one person asking why the city did not hold such public meeting before closing one side of the road for the pilot project, City Engineer John Cameron noted that it is often difficult to get people to attend any such meeting until something is actually done, like this pilot project, that gets the public’s attention. He had also let the people know that this was one of the top fast-track proposals endorsed by consultant Jeff Speck and outlined in a public meeting more than a year ago.

This frequent observer of public meetings believes Cameron was telling a sad truth. The public usually does not make itself aware of what its government is doing or plans to do and often does not actively participate until something happens. Then those who make their voices heard are typically those who do not like what has been done.

More to the point addressing the complaints of those who said they did not know about the plan to close one side of Riverside Drive until it happened was that the city’s announced plans for the pilot project implementation got major play by the news media, including by The Commercial Appeal on March 8, was also outlined in the Memphis Daily News April 22, the Memphis Business Journal March 10, WMC-TV March 11, and WHBQ-TV March 11. The southbound lanes of Riverside Drive were closed for much of May, as usual for the Memphis in May festival, and the pilot project keeping those lanes closed to motor vehicles ensued after that. This time line means the public got more than two months to voice whatever comments it had about the plans before the city actually began the project.   The city council meets about twice a month and a member of the public may request to speak on any subject, the matter does not have to be on the agenda. Letters, phone calls, and e-mail messages could have been directed to council members, the mayor, the city engineer, and others. If people do not take the time and effort to try to stay informed and then participate in our self- government, it tends to make them look less than diligent when they later complain about not having had an opportunity for input.

There were one or two comments at the July 29 meeting that messages left with the city were not returned. Cameron said he was disappointed to hear that, leaving the impression that if his office gets legitimate communications from the public he expects it to respond.

Certainly the comments at the late July gathering, including those that were seemingly tinged with animosity, are valuable feedback to the city about what some of the residents think and Cameron promised to take the suggestions under consideration. It is rarely too late for the public to tell its government what it wants. It is good that the opponents, as well as those favoring the reassignment of Riverside Drive, were at the July 29 meeting. It is a shame that less than 50, excluding the media, city officials, and Beale Street Landing employees, chose to attend. Regardless, as they would probably admit and as their questions clearly implied, there could be better timing for comments for those who opposed any change to Riverside Drive and it would seem that the months between the announcement of the plan and its implementation would have been that better time.

The outrage expressed by some of the public about not having a reasonable opportunity to address the issue with the city seemed, for the most part, to be outrageous. Since this was not a major concrete and earth moving project requiring a long term advance commitment, it could be argued there was a significant amount of time and opportunity for the public to express itself.

If residents of a city do not inform themselves and take part in their self-government, then it could be said they deserve what they get, whether they like it or not.

Although there may well be times for outrage, it would seem obvious that it might be worthwhile for all of us to devote a little more, or perhaps much more, time to learning what our various levels of government are doing, then to express our opinion to our elected and appointed officials, preferably in a timely and courteous manner, not after-the-fact and with animosity because we did not, in fact, inform ourselves and make our voices heard earlier.

Are train “whistles” too loud, too often, too much?

train-crossingShelby County Historian Jimmy Ogle in speaking about the inconveniences to motorists imposed by the rail line along the Southern and Poplar Avenues corridor, has said “it’s not in our way, we’re in its way.”

He is pointing out that the rail line was there before the city grew around it. It became operational as the Memphis and Charleston Railroad in 1857.

You do not have to live next to a railroad to feel the vibration and hear the rumble of the trains or, especially, to experience the piercing sound of the train horn. The old train whistle, while certainly loud, has given way to what is more aptly described as a horn. This writer lives more than a mile away from any railroad track, but often hears the horns quite distinctly even inside with doors and windows closed.

There are plenty of train horns in Memphis. The city is only one of three in the United States that is served by all five Class I railroads, as befits America’s Distribution Center, which is what the city promoted itself as for many years. Along with the positive economic impact of that comes some inconveniences, one of which is the noise.

The city has contracted for a study to determine if there are any areas along the Norfolk Southern line, which runs along the Southern and Poplar Avenues corridor, that qualify to become quiet zones. If any such areas are selected and the option implemented, it will not change the rumble and vibration from the trains, but it might well quiet the horns.

Federal regulations require trains to sound horns at least four times as they approach an intersection with a roadway. In a quiet zone, however, that requirement is suspended unless safety or other compelling reasons require the use of the horn. A quiet zone has to be at least one-half mile long and can encompass several intersections.

To become a quiet zone several criteria must be met, including efforts to mitigate any increased risk there might be to street traffic from the trains not using horns as they approach the intersections. Typically there is some cost to upgrade existing equipment that restricts street traffic from approaching the rails when a train is near.

The study will look at the 23 at grade street crossings along that Norfolk Southern railway corridor to see which area of three or four crossings that would provide the most benefit as a quiet zone. The study involves $22,376.10 in private funding from Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare and $11,448.90 in city public funds. Parsons Transportation Group Incorporated, an international technical, engineering, construction, and management support firm with its principal office in California, but with an office in Memphis, is conducting the study for the city in cooperation with the University of Memphis, which conducted a similar study in recent years.. The council accepted the private funds in a vote March 28, 2014, and according to city engineer John Cameron the public funding had already been approved.

The study is to be completed and submitted to the city by the end of the year 2014.

Detecting Natural Gas Leaks, Preventing Disasters

Memphis Area Has About 1600 Serious Gas Leaks A Year

The explosion March 12, 2014, in New York City killed eight people, injured dozens, and destroyed two apartment buildings. The blast occurred moments after a resident in one of the apartment buildings called the gas company to complain about the smell of natural gas. After the explosion, the National Transportation Safety Board investigators found a high concentration of gas in the soil around the building locations when normally no gas would be expected to be found in the soil. These factors lead experts to believe the explosion very well could have been the result of a natural gas leak.

In 2010, a gas line leak caused an explosion in a single family residential area of San Bruno, California, killing eight people there, seriously injuring dozens more, destroying 38 homes and damaging 70 others.

“Too often, the investigations into events like today’s reveal the cause to be old, outdated pipes, misplaced pipes, poor pipe locating technology and/or inaccurate system maps, or unsafe construction practices,” says Brigham McCown, the former head of the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, as quoted on

Just a couple of weeks ago, Memphis Light, Gas, and Water Division of the City of Memphis responded to questions from Memphis City Council member Kemp Conrad in connection with a contract with a private company to survey for natural gas leaks. Jerry Collins, President of MLGW and Craig Powers, Manager of the MLGW Gas Matrix Department, explained that about 7,800 gas leaks were reported to the utility last year. About 20 percent, or about 1,600, were considered “grade one,” calling for fixing the leak within 24 hours. The utility recognizes two other grades for gas leaks, categorized by the concentration of gas detected, which call for repair within 30 days or within a year of detection.

Both motorized vehicles and handheld devices are used to detect leaks. Those on vehicles primarily detect leaks from the mains that are under the streets while the handheld devices are used to check for leaks in the pipes under the customer’s property going from the main to the customer’s gas meters.

MLGW was asking for an extension of the current contract to cover from March 1 of this year to February 28, 2015, with Heath Consultants, Inc. In the amount of $1,615,140.40. The City Council voted to approve the contract at its February 18, 2014, meeting.

The reports about the New York City explosions do not indicate from where the resident was calling when he/she reported the smell of natural gas in the building. However, it should be noted that if a strong smell of gas is detected, it is highly recommended no electronic devices, including landline or cellular telephone be used, and, of course, no open flame or spark generating device be used in the area. It is best if one exists the area and calls from a nearby location where there is not the smell of gas. More safety suggestions are below from MLGW.

Just to be technically correct, natural gas itself does not have an odor, gas companies inject it with an additive to give it the distinctive smell specifically to alert people should there be a hazardous situation.

If you smell a strong odor of natural gas in or near your home or office, you should immediately call MLGW’s 24-hour Emergency Line, (901) 528-4465. If possible, call from another location, such as a neighbor’s home, and do not re-enter your home until an MLGW representative has advised you that you can do so safely. Also remember: do not turn lights or other electrical appliances on or off, or use matches.

It should also be noted that the law requires people to call before digging in the ground, even with a post hole digger, so that it can be determined if there are any utility facilities that might be affected by the digging. It’s a free call, dial 811.

Check MLGW’s web site for additional safety information:

Walk/Bike Path Over Harahan Bridge Funding Gap

Harahan Bridge

Harahan Bridge

A bit more was learned about the status of the Main Street to Main Street project at the Downtown Memphis Commission board meeting November 21, 2013, where Project Director Paul Morris gave an update as he did the day before at the CCRFC meeting (see below).

Here’s some of what Morris had to say about the funding aspects after the bridge bids came in $5-million higher than expected.

“In addition to trying to lower the cost we’re also trying to raise more money.
The goal is by February we will reduce the cost and raise enough money that they will match. If they do not match, we will not move forward with the project.  That’s obviously not our intent and we fully expect to move forward with the project because we have a lot riding on this as a community. “

“Here’s the bottom line. When the mayor presented the budget to the City Council that was approved for this project, the bridge construction cost  was estimated to be about $16-million. Even with that the mayor indicated that there was about a $4-million gap because of the funding sources available at that point and how much the bridge was going to cost. So that’s a $4-million gap. What the mayor pledged to the City Council was that before we ask you to put a single dollar of discretionary capital money into this project, which by the way the City Council has not done, it’s a City of Memphis project but there is zero discretionarly city capital money in this project. There’s storm water funds from the city which are pledge legally only for drainage downtown, like fixing the flooding in city hall and things like that but so far the city has not put any capital money into the bridge. He said before I ask you for any capital money we’re going to exhaust other sources of funding, we’re going to raise some of that $4-million before we come ask you for a portion of that.

“So we already started with a $4-million gap. When the bridge bid came back at $21-million that’s another $5-million gap. That’s a total of $9-million in gap. So with that bid, which is unworkable, which we’re going to have to reduce, we’ve got a $9-million gap. What we’ve got to do is reduce that number and raise additional funds from different sources. It’s a $9-million gap from what we have locked in and the initial bid we got. But that initial bid is no longer operative. We have rejected that bid, we’re redesigning.”

A board member then pointed out that with the Plough Foundation pledge of $1-milliion, contengent on the rest of the funds necessary to complete the project were raised, the fuding gap would be eight million dollars.

“That’s right.  I should also say that we got an additional allocation of a million dollars from West Memphis that was about two months ago or so…We’ve also raised other private funding, not to the million dollar kind of level, but significant other additional funding. We’ve also many good conversations with private funders who have agreed that they will contribute significant sums of money to this project but they and we have agreed that we would come to them when the bids came back and tell them what the amount we need is so that they can give us a pledge that will get us over the hurdle instead of just giving us some money without knowing if they were going to get us over the hurdle or not. The private fund raising efforts, while I am helping with that and other in the city are, are being primarily led by Charlie McVean and his team.
I should also say the Community Redevelopment Agency recently allocated an additional almost $400,000 to this project…”

A Bridge Too Far – Harahan Bridge Pedestrian Project Faces Major Issue – Alternatives Formulated

Harahan Bridge

Harahan Bridge

Too far in the red, so much so that not only are design modifications being researched, additional funding sought, but alternatives to the original bridge walk concept are being formulated. Bids for a major portion of the Main Street to Main Street Multi-Modal Connector Project, that for the development of the walking and bike path across the Mississippi River on the Harahan Bridge came in far higher than anticipated. The estimate for the bridge work was $16-million but the bids came in at $21-million, according to Project Director Paul Morris.

On November 20, 2013, Morris briefed members of the Center City Revenue Finance Corporation on the status of the project. He said  he is “guardedly optimistic” that a combination of modifications to the design of the bridge pathway and success in seeking additional funds will lead to the project being successfully completed.

The Main Street to Main Street project is an effort to both fix up existing infrastructure and build anew a pathway for pedestrians and bicycles from North Main Street in Memphis to Broadway Avenue in West Memphis, Arkansas, which is that city’s main street. As of August, 2013, the estimated cost for the entire project was $37.3-million.

Work began last week at the northern end of the project in Memphis. According to Morris, the downtown Memphis portion of the project is fully funded, bids came back on budget and construction began last week. Construction will be on a block by block basis so not to cause too much disruption at any one time.

Morris reported that bids on the bridge portion of the came back “way above” budget. “You never know what something is going to cost until you go and ask someone who can provide it to you for an actual price,” he said. When that was done, the bids for the bridge portion of the project came in at $21-million and that was “too much.” As a result, the design of that portion of the project is being reviewed for improvements and cost savings.

One of the areas of change may be the requirements imposed by the Union Pacific Railroad. The Harahan Bridge has been a rail bridge only since 1949, when automobile traffic was routed over the then new Memphis-Arkansas highway bridge. Naturally Union Pacific wanted to insure that conversion of the bridge to include pedestrian and bicycles did not disrupt its operations. Morris says some of their demands were quite expensive but that Union Pacific has said it would be flexible in working with the design firm to help lower the cost and is, in fact, currently  demonstrating that flexibility.

Morris went on to say that “while we tried to create the most efficient design the first time, they are now finding ways to make it more efficient and not sacrificing quality at all but just making it a better product.

The redesign of the bridge portion is expected to be complete and new bids sought in late January or February of 2014 with expectations the gap will narrow between the estimated cost and the original bids.

In addition to design changes for the bridge work, Morris says proponents of the project are trying to raise more money. Morris told the group, “we are also vigorously working on going to the private sector and other sources to raise more money.” Last week, according to Morris, the Plough Foundation pledged $1-million towards the project after being approached for help. “They determined that this project really was a catalyst for the whole community and part of the advancement of Memphis…”

In expressing his guarded optimism for the project, Morris went on to say that “… we are hoping we will be able to finish it and we think that we will. I don’t even want to talk about the alternative right now but we are coming up with Plan B and Plan C but we’re sticking with Plan A right now to finish the project.”

It might be noted here that there is an existing pedestrian sidewalk on the Memphis-Arkansas bridge. That bridge is the southern-most of three bridges located together and does not afford the better view of downtown Memphis as would the pathway on the Harahan Bridge, which would be the northern-most path on the three bridges.

Funding sources at the time of the original bids went out for the project include various federal programs contributing a total of $18.9-million, Tennessee state funds of $2-million, Shelby County $1-million, City of Memphis Storm Water Funds:  $6-million, CRA Tax Increment Financing  $2-million (funds are generated from excess tax collections in the specific geographic area known as Uptown and may only be used for infrastructure in that area),  Center City Revenue Finance Corporation $2-million and private contributions of about  $1-million.