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franklin county times

I-69 and east Mississippi

By By Buddy Bynum / editor
July 14, 2002
The asphalt of a new Interstate highway running through the Mississippi Delta will never touch east Mississippi and, yet, the highway is as important to our area's future as it is to the Delta's. That point was made by Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall during remarks to the Kiwanis Club of Meridian the other day.
I suppose one could argue that it was a political point made by a politician speaking to east Mississippians who feel their interests are being ignored. We need to hear the case of how a new interstate a couple of hundred miles away can help this area, too, and, if possible, find a way to connect it to improving the quality of our own lives.
Helping the Delta has made a great political argument for decades. The concept has helped powerful legislators build political careers. Relating how helping the Delta helps the entire state is illustrative. Unfortunately, all too often, help for the Delta is mired so deeply in local politics that one has to wonder whether the money ever reaches the people it's supposed to help.
While working for awhile at what is now the Mississippi Development Authority, I began to tabulate from official federal and state sources just how much public so-called "development" money was going to the Delta. A couple of hundred million here and a couple of hundred million there soon add up to billions of dollars enough, you'd think, to begin to make a difference.
But, alas, the billions apparently haven't been enough.
Hall, 64, former chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the new Interstate 69 that will enter Mississippi in the vicinity of the Bolivar County town of Benoit (population 611) carries economic implications way beyond the act of laying asphalt.
Interstate highways are magnets for economic development, and since the Delta's never had one, I-69 can only help. Hall's reasoning is that the poverty-stricken areas of the Delta, populated by people with minimal job skills and low educational attainment levels, will continue to drag down the rest of the state until conditions there improve. Lift up the Delta, it's been argued for decades, and the whole state will benefit.
I don't fault the concept. It seems to me that people in the Delta ought to grab onto a beacon of opportunity  like, perhaps, I-69 and truly begin to help themselves, and until they do, not much will change.
To a Transportation commissioner, there's nothing like a new highway to attract economic growth. But in this case, I hope he's right. After all, what would Bonita Lakes Mall and all of the associated retail development be without I-20/59 on its front doorstep?
Interstate highways developed under a concept of quickly moving military personnel and equipment  are now supposed to facilitate a safer flow of traffic volumes greater than ever. In some places, interstates also attract new manufacturers and other commercial ventures that need speedy access to major roads for distribution purposes.
Meridian has good retail trade along most of the I-20/59 route through town. The interstates complement a good system of other four-lane roads fed by two-lane connectors.
What we don't have here is the flat land of the Mississippi Delta or the billion-dollar publicly-funded road, education and economic development projects planned or under way there. We aren't likely to get them, so we have to work with what we have.
I confess to being a native born east Mississippian. This is my home and I like the rolling hills in what I've heard described as the "toenails of the foothills of the Appalachians." I like the creeks and woods, the tall pines, the feeling of family and community.
I hope Dick Hall is right, that a new interstate highway through the Mississippi Delta will stimulate new roots of economic development, the bounty of which the entire state can share.

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