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By Tom Charlier - The Commercial Appeal -
A Memphis road project that has been a source of disagreement since Richard Nixon was president is again generating objections.
The group operating Shelby Farms Park has sent a letter to the Tennessee Department of Transportation saying it "cannot at this time agree" that the design of the proposed Shelby Farms Parkway will cause only minimal harm to the 4,500-acre park.
In response to the Supplemental Final Environmental Impact Statement for the road, the Shelby Farms Park Conservancy said the project could disrupt access into the park and "connectivity" within it. The group also objects to tractor-trailers using the road, and it questions whether the project will harm the source of Memphis' drinking water and create an increased flood risk.
The group sent its letter in advance of the conclusion today of a public-comment period on the environmental document.
Conservancy executive director Laura Adams said the letter is not an attempt to further delay the project, but to get assurances that the road won't harm the park.
"We still have some very serious questions that have not yet been answered," Adams said.
The parkway project, the origins of which date back to a 1969 transportation plan, involves a four-lane divided road through the park linking Walnut Grove with Whitten at Macon. It is intended to provide a new north-south artery alleviating the lengthy traffic backups now seen on roads in and around the Shelby Farms area.
The projected cost is $20 million to $25 million, with the federal government funding 80 percent.
The source of bitter debates through the 1980s and 1990s, the road proposal has been repeatedly revamped and even shelved once. Local officials thought they had resolved the disagreements in 2005 when a committee of interest groups empanelled by then-Shelby County Mayor and current city Mayor AC Wharton endorsed a "context-sensitive" consensus plan featuring a lower-speed, gently curving, landscaped road designed to minimize environmental impacts.
Although she was on the committee that produced the consensus plan, Adams said the final document prepared by a consultant appears to restrict pedestrian, bicycle and vehicular access in the park and doesn't provide enough details to allay other concerns. She noted that the park is "two or three times busier" than it was in 2005.
City engineer John Cameron said that despite the conservancy's misgivings, he's confident Memphis officials and the group can get together and "work through" the issues.
One potential sticking point, however, is the conservancy's objection to tractor-trailers. Since the project is receiving federal funds, the Federal Highway Administration sets rules on vehicular access. "That's the FHWA's call," Cameron said.
County Public Works director Tom Needham said the parkway will not worsen flooding or cause contamination of the Memphis Sand aquifer. State regulations stipulate that roads built across a floodplain must not lead to a rise in flood waters, he said, and aquifer-protection recommendations from the Ground Water Institute at the University of Memphis have been incorporated in the planning.
State and federal officials will respond to comments on the document.
Assuming the conservancy's concerns can be resolved, FHWA will issue a record of decision allowing final design work to begin. Construction could start in about two years, Cameron said.
-- Tom Charlier: (901) 529-2572