Black Belt could gain interstates

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 29, 2004

NATCHEZ – Legislation still in its early stages proposes two new Interstates through the Black Belt region – including a route from Augusta, Ga., to Natchez.

U.S. Rep. Max Burns, R-Ga., along with a bipartisan group of lawmakers that includes Chip Pickering, R-Miss., has introduced a bill to begin steps for development of Interstates 3 and 14.

Interstate 3 – named for the Third Infantry Division – would link Savannah, Ga., to east Tennessee, while Interstate 14 would link Augusta to Natchez. Georgia Sens. Zell Miller and Saxby Chambliss are to introduce companion legislation in the Senate.

“This is the initial kickoff stage,” said John Stone, press secretary for Burns. “We don’t have a cost estimate yet.”

In fact, the legislation calls for the Federal Highway Administration to come up with a feasibility and cost study by December.

U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., a co-sponsor of the bill, said Congress should act quickly on the legislation.

“If constructed, this project could become a catalyst for new jobs and increased economic development in many of our rural areas, and I hope Congress will act quickly to further debate its merits,” he said.

Mississippi Department of Transportation Director Larry L. “Butch” Brown had not heard of the legislation on Wednesday, but he said he welcomed the proposal.

The Interstate 14 route would follow U.S. 84 through Brookhaven to Natchez. Altering plans for U.S. 84 – part of the soon-to-be four-laned El Camino route – would mean creating controlled access, not just limited access to the highway, Brown said.

“It would be doable, but it would be very difficult, very expensive to build (a highway) to existing standards,” he said. “But if they’ll give us the money, we’ll do it.”

The proposal grew from economic development plans from the Black Belt Regional Commission proposed by Miller and Artur Davis, D-Ala., Stone said.

Miller and others want to boost the Black Belt region in the same way the Appalachian Commission once helped that area of the country.

“One of the major catalysts (for growth in Appalachia) was Interstate 81,” Stone said.

Economic development plans often call for greater education standards and workforce training, but education alone cannot bring jobs, Stone said.

“We are rich in higher education, but where are (residents) going to work?” he said. “The jobs have to be there. We have to have transportation. That’s been a real holdback.”

The legislation would not create additional highway funding but would require reallocation.

Passing such legislation could be tough, but Stone said the proposal has “a tremendously strong bipartisan coalition” behind it. If the bill for the transportation study passes, lawmakers hope to begin work to make the interstates a reality in January.

“This is truly a neglected section of the country,” he said.

The next step for lawmakers?

“To work like the devil to get the legislation passed,” Stone said.