It exists in two parts – a completed roadway from Indianapolis to the Canadian border and then a mostly-proposed extension southwest to the Mexican border in Texas, with a small section already in place in northwest Mississippi and other states.
Once the so-called “NAFTA Highway” is open for traffic, it’s expected by many to bring more jobs and economic development to the Mississippi Delta.
What’s not so certain is when the Mississippi portions of the transcontinental roadway will be completed.
In Oct. 2006, the first Mississippi segment of I-69 opened to traffic between a point near U.S. 61 north of Tunica at the county line and I-55 north of Hernando. The south end is an at-grade intersection with the former route of Highway 304 near Tunica, where Highway 713 continues west to U.S. 61.
There is no mistaking that the casino industry and the revenue it generates has changed the landscape of Tunica County. With access to adequate transportation and inter-modal forms of getting to and from one place to another, new highways in Northwest Mississippi have become a major source of growth and potential development.
“I can say with confidence that we’ve listed I-69 and its completion as a high priority,” said Webster Franklin, president of the Tunica Convention & Visitors Bureau. ‘So far, it’s created an ease of access for workers, residents and tourists coming from the east. Eventually, it will open up a whole lot of things for the region.”
Still, progress is slow.
Mississippi Department of Transportation spokeswoman Carrie Adams says that highway construction in the state has been hampered over the past two decades by several components.
“The ability to construct and maintain highways has been affected by factors such as a flat, and more recently, a declining revenue stream,” she said, adding that those factors included the increased cost of construction and maintenance, increased costs and time in complying with recent changes to environmental regulations and more fuel-efficient vehicles.
“Constructing highways in accordance with today’s environmental regulations requires 10-12 years,” Adams said. “What this means is that once a DOT falls behind the curve, a tremendous amount of time and resources are needed to catch up.”
Currently, MDOT has divided the remainder of the I-69 Mississippi project into several areas of study.
The first area begins at the I-40/SR 385 interchange in Tennessee and extends to the I-55/304 interchange in Hernando. This section also includes the auxiliary I-269 corridor that will be built on a new location that will cross into Marshall County and turn west to Byhalia. Preliminary design is complete and right-of-way is being purchased for the first phase, which is expected to begin in 2011.
The second study includes I-69 running concurrent with existing SR 304 from I-55 to U.S. 61. Constructed to interstate standards, has been officially signed as I-69.
In the third study involving the Robinsonville to Benoit route, MDOT officials say the Environmental Impact Study (EIS) has been sent to the Federal Highway Administration for review. However, there is no funding in place for the design, right-of-way or construction phases. The recommended corridor is located in Tunica, Quitman and Coahoma counties and is generally parallel or concurrent with U.S. 61.
A fourth study includes the new Mississippi River bridge near Benoit. The EIS has been approved by the federal government and the design of the bridge is near completion. Right-of-way acquisition and construction phases will be handled by the state of Arkansas, Adams said.
“The completion of the project can’t help but be a tremendous boost to the Mississippi Delta, “ said Judson Thigpen, executive director for the Cleveland-Bolivar County Chamber of Commerce. “It will do us a world of good, bringing jobs and more opportunity for economic development.”
Thigpen says that no matter when I-69 is completed, the Delta region still has to do its part.
“We have a lot of work to do, regardless of when the highway is built,” he says. “When we know exactly when and where it’s coming through, we can begin purchasing land for an industrial park and other development.”
Franklin says he’s not sure that a completed I-69 will bring more people to the region but “what it will do will make it easier to compete economically and cause additional growth.”
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