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Four-laning project expected to boost economic opportunities

Long ago, a trade route stretched from southern Texas into Louisiana. It came to be known as El Camino Trail. Now, a five-state consortium hopes to reestablish and extend the trail from El Paso, Texas, on the Mexican border, to Brunswick, Ga., according to Mississippi Southern District Highway Commissioner Wayne Brown.

If the consortium succeeds, 1,729 miles of U.S. 84 will be four-laned and the highway will become a major east-west trade corridor for goods, an important element in attracting industry and a lure for travelers, particularly older people in recreational vehicles or motor homes, who have disposable income and more leisure time in which to spend it.

“People with motor homes don`t like to put them through two-lane highways,” Brown said.

“It`s important to keep the four-laning of Highway 84 on the front burner with highway departments,” according to Laurel Mayor Susan Vincent, who is a member of the El Camino Corridor Consortium. “The four-laning will have a major impact on future economic development.”

“The four-laning of Highway 84 is a great economic thing for Jones County,” according to Harry Bush Sr., former chairman of the Jones County Economic Development Authority and now a member of its board and executive committee. “When an industry is considering moving into a community, one of their top priorities is transportation.”

Bush pointed out that a major north-south corridor — Interstate 59 — already runs through Jones County and that widening Highway 84 will give the county a needed major east-west highway.

“We want to get traffic off of Interstates 10 and 20 and onto Highway 84,” Brown said. “Interstate 10, particularly, has about reached its capacity.”

Interstate 10 runs from Mobile to New Orleans, a few miles north of the Gulf of Mexico. Interstate 20 goes from the Alabama line to Vicksburg and passes through Meridian and Jackson.

Of the consortium`s five states that stretch from Georgia to Texas, Mississippi is the closest state to completing its four-laning of Highway 84. Mississippi has 186.2 miles of the highway and, so far, 159.6 have been completed or are currently under construction.

An eight-mile stretch in Jefferson County is the last segment of the highway to be four-laned in District 7 — which includes the area from Natchez to the Covington-Jones County line — and that will be contracted in the spring of 2004, according to Darrell Broome, District 7 engineer.

That will leave only one stretch, which is in Wayne County in District 6, to be completed. Brown said that the contract for these Wayne County miles will be let in a couple of years and he estimated that all of Highway 84 will be completed by 2008.

But, before paving can be started, grading and draining contracts for the Wayne and Jefferson Davis County miles must be let and that work completed.

Construction companies benefit

The widening of Highway 84 has been and continues to be economically important to area construction companies. Among these companies under contract in District 7 are:

• Tanner Construction of Laurel. Three grading and draining projects. (Tanner also completed a paving contract in the recent past.)

• L&A Construction of Hattiesburg. Grading and draining in Lawrence County.

• Pace Construction Company of Columbia. Grading and draining east of Prentiss.

• And, W.E. Blaine of Mt. Olive has, in the recent past, been under contract for paving east and and west of Monticello.

In Monticello, as well as in Laurel, paving has been halted at the city limits and a decision will have to be made in the future on whether the highway will run through the towns or go around them.

An elevated highway has been discussed for Laurel but Mayor Vincent said that there`s no money in the budget and that there will have to be a surface highway, either following the present route through Laurel or as a bypass.

“If a bypass is close to the city limits and it works for Laurel`s economic development, I’d prefer that,” Mayor Vincent said. “But if it`s something like five miles away, I’d rather see the highway continue to run through Laurel.”

Tourism as a form of economic development is quite possible if the El Camino Corridor materializes, Mayor Vincent believes.

“Cities and counties in all the states could work together to promote tourist destinations along the corridor,” she said. “It could develop into an El Camino Tourist Trail and bring overnight visitors.”

Getting the word out

The consortium consists of mayors, members of economic development agencies and transportation officials from Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.

“Our primary goal is the four-laning of Highway 84,” Brown said. “But we also need to publicize the four-laning.” He urged cities and counties along the highway to publicize it as a prime source of industrial and commercial growth and said that widening the highway can create thousands of jobs across the five states.

“Right now, we’re applying general pressure on transportation officials in the other four states.”

Brown also said that Alabama and Georgia are doing well on the highway widening but that Texas and Louisiana are “lagging a little bit.”

“One problem with getting the money for the four-laning in Louisiana is that half the population lives south of Interstate 10, which runs from New Orleans to Lake Charles,” Brown add.

The four-laning of Highway 84 from the Alabama line to Natchez is part of the 1987 Four-Lane Highway Program, a $5.2-billion act to four-lane or make other improvements on 1,811 miles of Mississippi highways, according to the Department of Transportation.

Contact MBJ contributing writer at George McNeill at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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