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Say Hello to America's Longest 'Rails-with-Trails' Bridge

After nearly 60 years unused, the Harahan Bridge’s wagonways have been converted into pathways for bikes and pedestrians.

Big River Strategic Initiative, LLC

Oh won't anybody tell me

How do you get to the Memphis and the Arkansas Bridge?

–Charlie Rich, “Memphis and Arkansas Bridge”

Poor Charlie Rich. All the country legend wanted in his 1970 rocker was to find an easy way back to Arkansas from Memphis, Tennessee. If only he had written his Odyssean tale in late 2016, Rich would have found a new way across the Mississippi River.

This coming weekend marks the official opening of Big River Crossing, a reworking of the Harahan Bridge, a Union Pacific railroad crossing over the Mississippi River. The truss bridge, designed by preeminent civil engineer Ralph Modjeski and completed in 1916, connects Memphis and the city of West Memphis, Arkansas. Modjeski configured the bridge to accommodate automobile traffic by devising cantilevered “wagonways” that flank the bridge’s railroad track. Now, after almost six decades without being used, those wagonways have been converted into pathways for bikes and pedestrians.

Big River Crossing rolls out for almost a mile over the Mississippi, making it the longest rails-with-trails bridge in the country. Development of rails-with-trails projects have accelerated in recent years—the nonprofit Rails to Trails Conservancy noted in a 2013 report a 260 percent uptick since 2000—but the scale and scope of BRX, as it’s been nicknamed, carries added weight to its unveiling.

(Copyright 2016, Big River Strategic Initiative, LLC)

“Big River Crossing is the centerpiece of ‘Main to Main,’” says Paul Morris, former head of the Downtown Memphis Commission (DMC). Morris is referring to the Main Street to Main Street Multimodal Connector Project, a 10-mile project that extends from Main St. in downtown Memphis to Broadway, the main street of West Memphis. At its core, Main to Main is a comprehensive streetscaping and transportation plan, incorporating everything from curb, gutter, and sidewalk repairs to implementing bicycling infrastructure. “We were looking for projects to enliven Main Street,” Morris says. “We settled on the ‘Main to Main’ name because it shows the connectivity between the two cities and states.”

Main to Main was awarded a $15 million TIGER grant in 2012. The plan, organized into five distinct segments is estimated to cost $30 million in total, and the remainder is being financed through a mix of federal, state, local and private funds.

Morris’s role at the DMC was always looking toward improving downtown Memphis’s streetscape, but the distinct design and use that has transformed the Harahan into Big River Crossing—and helped inform the successful TIGER grant application—only came into focus after Morris met with local engineer and bike enthusiast, Greg Maxted. In early 2010, Maxted started thinking about the possibilities of making the disused wagonways on the Harahan into bike paths. “I thought it would be cool to ride my bike across the Mississippi,” Maxted says nonchalantly.

Maxted and a few friends started talking up the idea to fellow board members at Greater Memphis Greenline, a cycling advocacy organization, and then caught the attention of Charlie McVean, the founder of Memphis-based futures trading firm, McVean Trading & Investments. McVean became the project’s biggest champion and hired Maxted full-time to serve as the primary advocate, researcher and public speaker to create awareness and momentum behind the project.

Although Union Pacific held the right of way along the Harahan’s track, Maxted’s research revealed that the city of Memphis and Crittenden County, Arkansas, where West Memphis lies, held the right of ways on the abandoned wagonways. In early 2011, McVean flew a contingent of civic and business leaders to Union Pacific’s headquarters in Omaha to discuss the emerging plan in full and formally propose the reconfiguration of the wagonways into bike and pedestrian paths. In the process, Main to Main was given its full form.

“Big River Crossing would not have been built without buy-in from Union Pacific,” McVean says. “Railroads traditionally have a deep-seated mistrust of mixing—‘people and trains don’t mix’ is the saying. There was no precedent in the history of Union Pacific for a project like Big River Crossing.”

McVean speaks in a slow, measured, Southern tone that grows more and more animated when discussing Big River Crossing. Although his connections and clout helped bring the vision to fruition, he downplays his role. “The only thing I did in this whole process that might not have occurred otherwise was to bring the people in Omaha [Union Pacific] together with people in Memphis,” he says.

(Shelby County Room, Memphis Public Library & Information Center)

Engineering firm HDR, a frequent collaborator with Union Pacific, took lead responsibility for the design of Big River Crossing, working with a series of partners, including local engineering, architecture and landscape architecture firms Buchart Horn, Self Tucker Architects and Ritchie Smith Associates (RSA). Safety was of paramount concern for all parties involved. The bridge’s original vertical truss elements provide the initial separation between track and path. Eleven-foot fences composed of sleek metal bands that bend toward the top to prevent climbers add another layer of protection; openings within the fence vary from 1-1 ½” inch to disallow any objects or debris to be thrown from track to path, or vice versa. The boardwalks vibrate lightly whenever a Union Pacific train (approximately one per hour) whistles through.

Smith, of RSA, whose firm led the design on the west approach of the boardwalk, says, “There are so many layers to this project. What we’re trying to do is enhance and enlarge one’s experience when they are going across the river. There’s nothing quite as majestic as crossing the Mississippi.”

Even before its official opening on October 22, Big River Crossing can be deemed a success in getting so many disparate parties to work together. “The Harahan is a catalyst for additional development,” says Paul Luker, the director of planning and development for the city of West Memphis. Luker believes that Big River Crossing and Main to Main will spur development along West Memphis’s blighted Broadway corridor, but also encourage continued collaboration toward realizing other large-scale public works in the Greater Memphis and Mid-South region.

Just as BRX made the Main to Main project a more focused reality, it can play a similar role to further the Big River Strategic Initiative, a multifaceted public-private effort to reimagine the areas around the Mississippi River as a crucible of geotourism. Among many individual projects, BRSI includes the build out of Delta Regional River Park, a 1,700-acre park in the Arkansas floodplain, and Big River Trail, a riverside bike trail atop the levees that will stretch from West Memphis to New Orleans. Ever ambitious, McVean sees the Big River Trail as part of an even larger program to construct bike trails all along “the great levee wall of the Mississippi” from St. Louis to New Orleans.

“Memphis has become quite an attractive city to bike in,” says Congressman Steve Cohen, who represents Tennessee’s 9th congressional district, which includes Memphis. Cohen reasons that making increased investments in cyclist- and pedestrian-oriented infrastructure will only enhance the region’s stature as a demographic pull, especially in concert with other recent developments, such as the expansion of the Shelby Farms Greenline. “[Memphis has] a wonderful indigenous culture unique to the U.S.A. Big River Crossing will bring in tourism and is an amenity for long-term residents,” says Cohen. “I hate to quote someone whom I have no regard for whatsoever, but this is going to be ‘huge.’”

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