October 25, 2016

Big River Crossing connects cities, states, people

On Saturday, Oct. 22, Mid-Southerners got their first real taste of an amenity that’s been in the works for more than four years. The Big River Crossing had its grand opening with ceremonies and celebrations on both sides of the Mississippi River and walkers, cyclists and amateur photographers couldn’t be happier.

Leaders on both sides of the Mississippi River cut their respective ribbons and walked to meet in the middle of the new boardwalk – and then made way for the throng of folks eager to get a look at the spectacular views on what is now the longest public cycling and walking bridge over the Mississippi.

Guests for the West Memphis ceremony included Crittenden County Judge Woody Wheeless, Sen. Keith Ingram and Gov. Asa Hutchison, along with representatives from Arkansas’ transportation and parks departments.

Here’s a video of just some of what took place on opening day.

And here’s an overview account from both sides of the Big River Crossing on opening day, originally published on Oct. 23 in The Commercial Appeal.

BIG RIVER BOARDWALK ON HARAHAN OPENS
-Kayleigh Skinner
When the 454-ton antique locomotive crossed the Mississippi River and came to a stop in Memphis Saturday morning, it was symbolic of the new connection between two river cities.

Residents of Memphis and West Memphis alike gathered around the respective entrances of the Harahan Bridge Boardwalk Saturday morning eager to see the new Big River Crossing, a brand new pedestrian boardwalk which allows cyclists and walkers to cross the river alongside Union Pacific Railroad freight trains.

The nearly mile-long boardwalk was open to pedestrians and cyclists at 1 p.m. Saturday, after a morning event where public and private officials praised the star of the $40 million Main to Main Intermodal Connector project linking Memphis to West Memphis. The boardwalk itself cost $18 million, partially funded by a federal Transportation Improvement Generating Economic Recovery grant and contributions from state and local governments and private sources. Project Director Paul Morris said the bridge was finished weeks ahead of the Nov. 4 projected finish date.

“Unless you’ve been a train conductor, it is a view that you have not seen of Downtown Memphis since 1949,” Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland said at a press conference before the bridge opened.

City and state officials mused over all of the teamwork and fundraising it took to get the boardwalk built, but said it wouldn’t have happened at all if not for Charlie McVean.

Described as a “force of nature” and “superman of the Big River Crossing,” McVean was credited with having the initial vision for the bridge’s future and convincing all the players necessary to see the project to fruition. He received two standing ovations as he spoke about the bridge, noting Union Pacific was not initially keen on the idea.

“Crowds of people will be closer to moving freight trains than ever before. I didn’t dare say that until we got this project finished,” McVean joked.

Union Pacific senior vice president of corporate relations Scott Moore agreed that the railroad was apprehensive at first because of safety concerns, but the railroad sent Steam Locomotive No. 844 to the Harahan Saturday to demonstrate the railroad’s commitment and mark a celebratory occasion. Known as “Living Legend,” it is the oldest operating steam engine in the world, Moore said.

The 100-year-old bridge is now the longest public cycling and walking bridge over the Mississippi. As Toks Omishakin, TDOT deputy commissioner and environmental bureau chief put it, “trying to convert a 100-year-old bridge into something that’s meant for walking and biking, that’s not an easy task.” Omishakin and many other officials said the project was a success because of because of former Memphis Mayor A C Wharton’s willingness to embrace the project and Strickland’s administration picking up the baton and carrying it to the finish, along with several private and public partnerships that spurred it along.

“It’s such a civic and cultural amenity for our current residents,” Strickland said. “I think it will draw tourists from all over the world down here.”

After the press conference, pedestrians on the Memphis side walked onto the bridge to meet in the middle and shake hands with the Arkansas officials.

Like Strickland, Helena-West Helena, Ark. Mayor Jay Hollowell described the bridge and adjoining 73-mile Big River Trail system as a “great economic tool.”

“Tourism is such a huge industry for our state and our area and this is just another tool for us,” Hollowell said.

Arkansas State Parks Director Grady Spann and his colleague Joe Jacobs rode their bikes onto the bridge and paused to take in the sweeping views of the Memphis skyline.

“This is just a really cool experience,” Spann said. “I think so many times we don’t get out and see what Memphis or West Memphis have to offer, and it’s really an encouragement to exercise, get outside and enjoy this beautiful view and experience it all.”

Jacobs, marketing and revenue manager for Arkansas State Parks, said he was invited to tour the bridge over the summer.

“I was amazed when I came up here,” Jacobs said. “If you stand here when it’s hot out, it’s about 10 or 15 degrees cooler from the breeze that comes off the water on either side.”

The bridge will be lit up with thousands of LED lights installed by Philips Lighting, which can change colors. They will illuminate the bridge for the first time tonight at 7 p.m., along with a fireworks show.

“A one mile long bike trail high above the Mississippi River right next to an active rail line,” Morris, the project director, said. “Who does that? Memphis does that.”