Jim Strickland

Jim Strickland is mayor of Memphis.

Infrastructure is key to continued growth in Tennessee’s economy

By Published: February 08, 2019 5:02 PM CT

The beginning of the year often brings a mixture of feelings – we reflect proudly on past accomplishments while trying to be honest about the resolutions we should make moving forward into the New Year. There is a political parallel here as the country welcomes new leadership in Congress and state and local governments also start fresh in 2019.

In Memphis and across Tennessee, 2018 was a year of strong economic growth. A newly released economic report from the University of Tennessee suggests that this growth will continue, albeit at a slower rate, into 2019.

We made huge strides on policy and projects that encourage this growth. A stand-out example is the Lamar Avenue corridor project, funded in part by a $71.1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Improvements to this vital 5-mile stretch will alleviate congestion and improve the flow of commerce through our “logistics corridor.” 

In general, I’d argue that infrastructure is one of the primary building blocks to economic success. Just think of the Tennessee businesses the Lamar Ave. enhancements will help: some 1,300 companies with about 70,000 employees, 535 truck terminals, 19 freight intermodal facilities and four rail yards. And the countless consumers who save money at the store when transportation is efficient and cost-effective.

I’d also argue that infrastructure is an area ripe for resolution. We’re on the right track but must keep investing in roads, bridges and other areas if we want to improve the state’s, “C” infrastructure grade. But policymakers at all levels of government have struggled to identify sustainable ways to pay for these fixes.

Here, I offer U.S. freight railroads as an example of what it takes to get infrastructure right. These privately-owned companies have spent $25 billion annually over the last several years to maintain and enhance the nationwide freight rail network. Tennessee’s 22 freight railroads move over 232 million tons of freight across the state annually, steadily chugging along to connect businesses to markets all across the continent and meet increasing freight demand.

We in Shelby County benefit from connections to five Class I railroads: Norfolk Southern, BNSF, Union Pacific, CSX and CN. These rail lines, plus several state-of-the-art intermodal yards, have helped make Memphis the third-largest rail center in the U.S. So when, for example, BNSF invests $200 million to expand its intermodal terminal at Shelby Drive and Lamar Avenue, as it did several years back, it is a boon to all the customers and consumers downstream.

Behind rail’s ability to make consistent, high-level investments is sound public policy that balances the needs of railroads and shippers. This sensible regulatory framework, since its inception over three decades ago, has led to the most productive and cost-effective freight rail system in the world. When government works with innovators, it leads to the kind of technological advances we see in rail – from positive train control to efficiency strides that let a train today move a ton of freight 479 miles on a single gallon of diesel.

Freight rail’s lesson for Tennessee infrastructure is twofold: we must continue to invest to get world-class transportation systems and we must look to new solutions to fund these investments. The user-pay model inherent to freight railroads – where private spending creates public benefits – is one that should be considered more fully as policymakers tackle lagging roadways and bridges. Memphis and the nation will benefit if we resolve to get infrastructure right.


Economic Development Transportation

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