See You In Court: Memphis and the Fight Over Interstate 40

The beautiful city of Memphis, Tennessee is known for many things:  stronghold of the Civil Right Movement.  Home to Elvis Presley and Graceland.  A rich artistic culture that helped launch the careers of many musicians, including B.B. King, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis.  And who can say “no” to Memphis’s world-famous barbecue?

Memphis is also known for something else: an ugly and drawn-out battle over one of the most controversial highway projects in United States history, which would eventually wind up at the United States Supreme Court in the case of Citizens to Preserve Overton Park v. Volpe.  How could an argument over a highway wind up being debated at the highest court in the nation?

In order to answer that question, let’s turn to the freeway plans for the city, which date back to the early 1960s.  Compared to a lot of other cities its size, Memphis seemed pretty cut-and-dry.  Interstate 55 would skirt the southwestern part of the city.,  Interstate 240 would be the primary by-pass around the area.  The only other major highway planned was Interstate 40, which would neatly cut a straightforward east-west path through the city proper.  Pretty simple, right?



Zoom in a little closer, however, and you realize that a potential headache is brewing:

overton park 2

Yup, that’s I-40 planning to cut right through Overton Park.  For those of you unfamiliar with the Memphis area, Overton Park is one of the scenic jewels of the city, consisting of over 340 acres that includes a 9-hole golf course, the Memphis Zoo, the Memphis College of Arts, a 126-acre nature preserve area, and the Levitt Shell amphitheater.


links at overton park

View of The Links at  Overton Park, the main golf course



Another view of the park, this time from the historic Greensward area

So how did this all come about?  To find out, let’s go back a few years.  The plan to build Interstate 40 through Overton Park began in 1956, at the suggestion of Memphis city officials and the Federal Highway Administration.  One year later, a group of dedicated city residents decided to form the “Citizens to Preserve Overton Park,” and a years-long battle ensued.  Why were government officials so keen on routing high-speed expressways through tranquil park lands?  On the surface, the idea might sound ludicrous, but according to Josh Whitehead at Creme de Memphis, the reason was actually pretty simple:

“Parks were viewed by the federal and state highway agencies as ideal locations for interstate highways through urban areas in the 1950s and 60s because no condemnation was required. This changed when Congress passed the Department of Transportation Act of 1966, which contained Section 4(f) requiring a finding by the highway agencies that there was no reasonable and prudent alignment outside of the public park or land.”

Of course, it wasn’t lost on the Citizens to Preserve Overton Park (CPOP) that there would be significant environmental consequences to the freeway– *ahem*– I mean, expressway project (I just found out that Tennessee refers to all “freeways” as “expressways” due to the fact that there are no Interstate toll roads in the state).  The list of possible negative effects included destruction of Rainbow Lake and some of the old forest area within the park, alongside the fact that I-40 would split the entire park in half, making it more cumbersome for pedestrians to get around:

overton park3

During the 1960s alternatives were proposed, including routing I-40 north of the park, but this proved costly and redundant since the northerly route brought the highway within a couple miles of the I-240 bypass.  Tensions within Memphis reached a new high on April 4, 1968, when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated while standing outside at the city’s Lorraine Motel.  Interestingly enough on that same day, the city council voted and gave the green light to allow the construction of I-40 through Overton Park.  In 1969 CPOP lost a lawsuit filed against the city to halt construction.  In 1970 an appeal was made to the 6th Circuit Court, where CPOP lost again.  Finally, in 1971, CPOP won the right to have their case heard at the U.S. Supreme Court.

With CPOP bringing their case to the highest court in the country, John Volpe, who at the time was Secretary of Transportation under President Richard Nixon, represented the respondent in the case.  CPOP’s main argument to the court was summarized thus:

“Under § 4(f) of the Department of Transportation Act of 1966 and § 138 of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1968, the Secretary of Transportation may not authorize use of federal funds to finance construction of highways through public parks if a ‘feasible and prudent’ alternative route exists. If no such route is available, he may approve construction only if there has been ‘all possible planning to minimize harm’ to the park. Petitioners contend that the Secretary has violated these statutes by authorizing a six-lane interstate highway through a Memphis public park. In April 1968 the Secretary announced that he agreed with the local officials that the highway go through the park; in September 1969 the State acquired the right-of-way inside the park; and in November 1969 the Secretary announced final approval, including the design, of the road. Neither announcement of the Secretary was accompanied by factual findings.”


For their part, Volpe and his allies made the following counter-arguments:

“[T]he requirement that there be no other ‘prudent’ route requires the Secretary to engage in a wide-ranging balancing of competing interests. They contend that the Secretary should weigh the detriment resulting from the destruction of parkland against the cost of other routes, safety considerations, and other factors, and determine on the basis of the importance that he attaches to these other factors whether, on balance, alternative feasible routes would be ‘prudent.’

But no such wide-ranging endeavor was intended. It is obvious that in most cases considerations of cost, directness of route, and community disruption will indicate that parkland should be used for highway construction whenever possible. Although it may be necessary to transfer funds from one jurisdiction to another, 25 there will always be a smaller outlay required from the public purse 26 when parkland is used since the public already owns the land and there will be no need to pay for right-of-way. And since people do not live or work in parks, if a highway is built on parkland no one will have to leave his home or give up his business. Such factors are common to substantially all highway construction.”

The Supreme Court decided in favor of CPOP, but that didn’t end the saga.  Throughout the 1970s, plans were discussed to route I-40 underground through the park, but again, cost considerations prevented this idea from gaining traction.  Finally, in 1981, the Department of Transportation removed the I-40 designation from the “orphaned” section of I-40 that had already been completed inside the I-240 beltway.  This part was re-named as Sam Cooper Boulevard.


Sam Cooper Boulevard, facing west near East Parkway, with Overton Park in the distance.

Further changes were made to Memphis’s interstate system in the years following Citizens to Preserve Overton Park v. Volpe.  I-40 was officially routed on the northern section of the I-240 bypass, and the I-240 designation was eventually removed.  The southwestern part of I-240 has also been re-designated as I-69 — known by its nickname as “The NAFTA Superhighway” — which has also generated a large amount of controversy in its own right to the present day.   And then there is the current construction of the I-269 outerbelt in the suburban Memphis area, which has raised environmental concerns as well.  The battles continue….



Map of Memphis Interstates and other major highways, as of June 2018

Additional Sources:

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