IMB Innovation Awards Winner 2017: Big River Crossing

Innovation: It was a herculean effort to pull together all the parties and all the funding, but now the Big River Crossing is the country’s longest active rail/bicycle/pedestrian bridge and people are coming from all over to try it out.

When those who were involved in bringing the Big River Crossing to fruition talk about their work, one word pops up in nearly every conversation.

“Miracle.”

As in, it’s a miracle that the $18 million, nearly one-mile walking and biking bridge that spans the Mississippi River ever came to be, considering the obstacles stacked against it from the start.

They also point to one man who is responsible for that miracle: Memphis businessman Charlie McVean, founder of McVean Trading and Investments. If not for McVean’s leadership, his devotion, and his money, the Big River Crossing would have never been completed.

“It took Charlie McVean to make something happen,” says Charlie Newman, a longtime lawyer with Burch, Porter and Johnson who was brought into the project in its early days and made his own invaluable contributions.

Added Dow McVean, who also worked with his dad on the project: “That’s a hundred percent true.”

This story began years ago, when Charlie McVean and others wondered why you couldn’t ride your bike or take a walk across the Mississippi River.

“That’s part of the way he got this idea in the first place,” Dow McVean says. “He rode his bike lots of miles on the weekends, and he got frustrated at the lack of long distance, safe bike trails to ride in the area.”

That got McVean to thinking, says his son, speaking on behalf of his father.

The Harahan Bridge already had two decks attached to it that for years carried cars and trucks across the bridge; they became superfluous when the other bridges across the river opened. Why not convert those unused decks into a pathway for cyclists and walkers?

A simple idea, or so it seemed. That’s where the miracles occurred, those involved say.

The first miracle was persuading Union Pacific Railroad, which owned the bridge, to allow the project to proceed. “Dad convinced the Union Pacific Railroad to let him do it,” Dow McVean says. “[In 2011], Dad took two planeloads of folks to Omaha to Union Pacific [headquarters]. He did a sales job. Railroads have a lot of power and their default mode is to say no to anything.”

But McVean was persistent, Newman says. “The railroad has no public relations or business interest in having this happen. Most railroads would reject it,” says Newman, who was also part of the Omaha trip. “Charlie took those Memphians over to Omaha and sat down with the CEO of Union Pacific. I think he just overwhelmed him. He realized that Charlie wasn’t going to take no for an answer, so he said OK and approved it.”

But that wasn’t the end of dealings with the railroad, Newman says. Just because the CEO okayed it didn’t mean the entire railroad was necessarily behind the project.

“Union Pacific is a huge organization,” Newman says. “And the whole middle management of Union Pacific had the ability to make it not happen if they didn’t want it. And they had no reason for it. They thought of every possible risk and obstacle they could think of. We spent years negotiating with them. They ended up making it just as expensive and hard to do as they could.”

Then, with the railroad finally on board, McVean and others got another shock: This was going to be a very expensive project, one that could only be accomplished with a federal grant.

The problem, however, was that the city of Memphis had been trying for years to get this Tiger grant, which the federal government allots for road, rail, transit, and port projects. They’d missed out every time. But this time, U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen stepped in to help secure the nearly $15 million grant.

“With Steve Cohen’s help, the second miracle occurred, the receipt of the Tiger grant. Without the Tiger grant, it would not have happened,” Dow McVean says.

Then, the third miracle was called for: How the heck do you actually build this nearly mile-long span, anyway? It wasn’t just building this straight path across the river. Engineers had to make sure no one could interfere with the trains still passing by, or make any attempts to jump into the river 100 feet below, among other concerns.

“There were then all kinds of engineering, technical, and railroad problems, which could only be solved at great difficulty,” Newman says. “Charlie spent a lot of money on consulting engineers to get that done.”

And all that finally led to the next miracle, after the Big River Crossing opened in October 2016: Would anyone care? After years of work and millions of dollars, would anyone be drawn to the possibility of walking or biking across the majestic river?

The answer was an enthusiastic YES. From its opening on October 22, 2016, through June 1, more than 150,000 people have crossed the bridge, officials say. Many of those have been tourists both from the United States and abroad, adding to Memphis’ growing reputation for adventure tourism.

“There were many dealbreakers along the way,” Dow McVean says, “and we overcame them.”