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Should I-69 go through Greenville?

Million-dollar bridges to be within 30 miles of each other, but other options involve politics

As the new U.S. 82 bridge over the Mississippi River near Greenville opens this week, pre-construction work continues approximately 30 miles to the north on the new Interstate 69 bridge at Mounds (or Eutaw) Landing just west of Benoit.

The Interstate 69 bridge’s close proximity to the new U.S. 82 bridge and its price tag — $715 million — raises a question: Why spend money on a new I-69 bridge at Benoit when there is now a completed interstate-grade bridge near Greenville? Wouldn’t it make more sense and save taxpayer dollars to have I-69, dubbed the “NAFTA Highway” and stretching from the Great Lakes to the Mexican border, cross the Mississippi River near Greenville as opposed to Benoit?

“I wish I could say I’m a proponent of the bridge at Benoit, but I’m not,” said Greenville commercial real estate broker Mal Kretschmar. “In these economic times, why build a new bridge so close to the new Highway 82 bridge?”

Kretschmar believes a large part of the reason for the two bridges is political. And, even those for the I-69 crossing at Benoit agree. But, the pro-Benoit camp argues that there are pragmatic reasons why the I-69 crossing at Greenville is the poorer choice, and why there should be two new Mississippi River bridges within 30 minutes of each other.

“All of these projects have to be justified. You have to have a cost-benefit ratio that works,” said Tommy Hart, director of the Port of Greenville. “But, competition for funding for these projects is very intense, so it gets back to politics. And, in politics, the strongest survive.”

Benoit is located in Bolivar County, so it should be expected that Judson Thigpen, executive director of the Cleveland-Bolivar County Chamber of Commerce and Industrial Development Foundation, is strongly behind the Benoit bridge. But, he is not surprised that the project has opponents.

“The (environmental impact study) was done within the proposed I-69 corridor, and it was determined that Benoit was the right place for the river crossing. Greenville will have a bird’s eye view,” Thigpen said. “With any projects such as this, there is going to be a minority that has reasons, maybe even good ones, to ask questions.”

 

Interstate politics

In the mid-1990s, the State of Arkansas was well represented in Washington. Bill Clinton was President, and fellow Arkansan Rodney Slater was director of the Federal Highway Administration (FHA) before being named to the Clinton cabinet as transportation secretary.

The lead state agency on the I-69 project is the Arkansas Department of Transportation.

This political power almost cost Mississippi a share of I-69. A proposal was made to have the interstate cross the river at Memphis, leaving the entire length of I-69 running west of the river in Arkansas.

Fortunately for Mississippi, former U.S. Sen. Trent Lott pushed through a provision in 1994 that required I-69 to come through Mississippi. The interstate would cross the river in Mississippi.

 

Finding an alternative

With Memphis out, other proposed river crossings included Tunica County in extreme Northwest Mississippi and Rosedale, which is approximately 16 miles north of Benoit. The Tunica County crossing was an attractive option for Arkansas, but left much of the Mississippi Delta without access.

Eventually, both the Tunica County and Rosedale crossings were ruled out for non-political reasons. Both sites sit between bends in the river, and the U.S. Corps of Engineers ruled that a bridge at either place would create hazards to river traffic. In addition, building at either site would impact extensive wetlands.

Suddenly Benoit became the lead candidate. The river is relatively straight there, and the area does not encompass wetlands on either side of the river. A crossing at Benoit also offers connections to U.S. 61 and 82 in Mississippi and U.S. 65 in Arkansas.

Benoit already had backers, too, The Delta Council endorsed the Bolivar County crossing before the FHA chose it as a prospective site.

No Greenville

The site of the Greenville bridge was never considered in the study for I-69 as it, too, sits between river bends.

Plus, the Greenville site was unattractive to Arkansas. If Greenville had been considered, I-69 would have only skirted extreme South Arkansas, leaving no access to the rest of the state, particularly the Arkansas Delta.

This left the two-bridge strategy. The new bridge at Benoit had to be built. And, Greenville had to have a new structure because of the transportation hazards to both river and road traffic posed by the old Greenville span.

 

Moot point

The time for debate over the river crossing has passed. In 2008, the EIS was completed, and Sections of Independent Utility (SIU) #11, sometimes called the Central Alternative was chosen. SIU #11 in the Mississippi Delta stretches from Robinsonville in Tunica County to Benoit, and generally follows or is concurrent with U.S. 61.

Thigpen and Chip Morgan, executive vice president of the Delta Council, expect the project to be entered into the “Federal Register” soon, perhaps this month.

When work will begin on the bridge at Benoit is still undetermined. Congress did not reauthorize the Transportation Bill this year. That is expected next year.

Money could still be an issue, however. While the project has already been authorized, funding would have to be appropriated for it.

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