The Scenic Route
Greg Maxted’s Harahan Bridge Project
aims to make transportation a breeze for MidSouth cyclists
Story by Casey Hilder
In 1916, the mayor of Memphis was political powerhouse E.H. “Boss” Crump, the First World War was in full swing and The Harahan Bridge, a 4,972-foot cantilevered pathway originally intended to hoist railroad cars high above the Mississippi River, was erected.
Now, nearly a hundred years later, one Memphis businessman has proposed an ambitious plan to update the bridge for pedestrian and cyclist use in the 21st century. The Harahan Bridge Project is a bike path initiative headed by Greg Maxted, Executive Director of the project and co-owner of Maxline, Inc. Maxted has spent the greater part of two years constructing a plan to urge city officials to refurbish the bridge as a pedestrian and cyclist-friendly walkway.
In 2012, the city of Memphis was awarded a federal grant for the “Main Street to Main Street Multimodal Connector Project,” with the Harahan Bridge as the centerpiece. The engineering phase of the project will be finished in May of 2013. The City of Memphis’ proposed $30 million project will connect Main Street in Downtown Memphis to Broadway Boulevard in West Memphis, Arkansas. Dubbed the “Main Street-to-Main Street multi-modal connector,” the plans aim to revitalize the 97-year-old structure and utilize the unused pathways of the Harahan Bridge to provide a new route across the river for local cyclists and pedestrians.
The Harahan Bridge currently stands alongside the Hernando de Soto, Frisco and Memphis-Arkansas bridges as one of four major viaducts across the Mighty Mississippi. Today, the bridge still carries up to 25 trains a day. The first challenge to Maxted’s plan came in the form of the bridge’s current owners, Union Pacific Railroad. “While the roadbeds are owned by the city of Memphis and Crittenden County, the bridge itself is owned by Union Pacific. Therefore, the first and the last hurdle is Union Pacific,” Maxted says, in reference to the company that currently operates the largest system of railways in the United States. “The CEO acknowledged that we [The City of Memphis] owned these roadways.”
The bridge has drawn ire from local publications over the years as one of the subjects of The Memphis Flyer’s ten biggest eyesores of the Bluff City in 2009, citing its rusty aesthetic and precarious walkways as particularly ugly standouts. However, Union Pacific’s promise to work with the city to reopen the roadways of the Harahan Bridge that are owned jointly by the city of Memphis and Crittenden County Arkansas proved to be the key Maxted needed to get the lofty project off the ground. The next obstacle was finding the funds to back this endeavor. A major proponent of Maxted’s plan came during January of 2011 in the form of Charlie McVean, CEO of McVean Trading Co. McVean, an avid cyclist and owner of an aerobic electronic cruiser, had heard of Maxted’s burgeoning project and proposed a deal. “He made me an offer I couldn’t refuse—to get paid for what I had been doing for free,” Maxted says. “It’s amazing what someone like that can do for a project. In two weeks, we were meeting with Mayor Wharton.”
In June 2012, the City of Memphis was awarded a $14.9 million Transportation Infrastructure Generation Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant from the Federal Department of Transportation for the project. “Only five percent of the proposed projects nationwide earn this grant,” Maxted says. “One of the keys to this project is matching government funds. Most federal projects are 80:20 but due to the competitiveness of this grant, we needed to be closer to 50 percent.” The TIGER grant provided startup capital for the $30 million project, while the rest was made possible through several funding partners: the City of Memphis, Shelby County, TDOT, the Downtown Memphis Commission and private donors. In addition to Mayor AC Wharton, supporters of the project include local political entities like former County Commissioner Mike Carpenter and Congressman Steve Cohen. “Having political support on both sides of the river is important,” Maxted says.
Carpenter was hired by the City of Memphis to manage the TIGER grant and the official revitalization project began in 2012. Through community involvement and deft political maneuvering, Maxted and his team have worked to make strides toward reimagining what was formerly known as one of the most bicycle-unfriendly cities in the country, according to 2008 and 2010 rankings from Bicycling Magazine. Maxted began working on bicycle initiatives for Memphis as a member of the board of the Greater Memphis Greenline, a 501(c)(3) organization that emerged in 2007 to rectify the city’s lack of greenways and bike lanes. With a goal geared toward making Memphis a more bicycle-friendly city, Maxted was one of the advocates promoting what is now The Shelby Farms Greenline, a 6.5 mile trail that runs throughout the city and provides a prime avenue for recreational cycling and transportation. Local TV reporter Joe Birch coined the term “The Greenline across the river,” in reference to the Harahan Bridge Project as a sort of expansion to the brand carved by the steadily growing trail.
The Greenline and similar initiatives drew attention to the MidSouth’s newly discovered love of cycling and landed Memphis on another of Bicycling Magazine’s annual lists in 2012. This time, however, the Bluff City was recognized as one of the region’s most improved cities in terms of a bike-friendly environment. Once the lush biking path was established in September of 2010, Maxted turned his attention to implementing new pathways and expanding the Greenline by rallying alongside local cycling advocates like Anthony Siracusa and Memphis’ first bike-ped coordinator, Kyle Wagenschutz. “The MidSouth is about 25 years behind other cities in terms of developing this kind of infrastructure and walking trails but we are catching up quickly,” Maxted says.
The Harahan Bridge Project proposes a number of civic improvements such as lighted beams to complement the Hernando de Soto Bridge and Memphis-Arkansas Bridge and a new, bicycle and pedestrian-friendly walkway. “At nighttime, the lights will be a feature. We want to make it something you look up at from the Mississippi River and think ‘Wow, that’s cool,’” Maxted says. The project also opens the door to new types of businesses geared toward pedestrians and cyclists such as Cheffies Café, a diner located just off the Greenline that frequently serves make-it-yourself meals to hungry pedestrians on the go.
The newly-renovated bridge is expected to open for pedestrians and cycling enthusiasts in late 2014.