New Loop Around Memphis Moves Ahead

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(Matt Dellinger, Transportation Nation)  In late June, the Mississippi DOT broke ground on another small piece of I-269 -- a new, wide loop a few miles to the north around Memphis, Tennessee. The outer ring highway, twenty-five miles and $669 million worth of which will traverse Mississippi, is part of the Interstate 69 project, sometimes called the “NAFTA Highway.” The loop is Mississippi’s largest active highway project, and I-69 is the nation’s.

Federal Highway Administrator Victor Mendez (far right) helps break ground on the I-269 project in Northern Mississippi (Photograph from USDOT Fast Lane blog).

Federal Highway Administrator Victor Mendez was there, in tie and shirtsleeves, to help shovel ceremonial dirt and to deliver remarks that summed up the sometimes-schizophrenic nature of America’s investment in new road infrastructure.

I-69, Mendez said, will “spur development and economic growth throughout the state,” while also “reducing congestion so people can spend less time in their cars and more time doing things they enjoy.”

This vision of new highways as congestion reduction is, many believe, bunk—especially when paired with the assertion that it will bring enough new traffic to spur economic development. The section of I-69 through Tennessee and Mississippi has met remarkably little organized opposition in the twenty years since it was first proposed, but several organizations around Memphis have spoken out against the new loop for just these reasons. As Tom Jones of Smart City Memphis blog put it, “The blind pursuit of more lanes and more roads without the fuller context for community in time creates an incomplete plan for transportation and replicates the same mistaken policies of the past.”

With transportation funds on the chopping block, it’s gotten harder to justify new roads (or faster trains) with speculative thoughts of economic development. A report released in May by the Pew Center on the States and the Rockefeller Foundation (a supporter of Transportation Nation) called out Mississippi as trailing behind other states when it came to spending and policy decisions.

“Mississippi aims to ‘provide a transportation system that encourages and supports Mississippi’s economic development’ and ‘ensure that transportation system development is sensitive to human and natural environmental concerns,’” the fact sheet (pdf) on the state read, “but it does not have performance measures to gauge progress in those areas.”

On the other hand, it’s hard to root against any plan that might light an economic spark in the impoverished Mississippi Delta, and to their credit, local officials in northern Mississippi have been emphasizing transit and compact development and other “livability” issues in their copious public meetings about I-269.

Is I-269 a good investment? Give us your thoughts in the comments section!

Matt Dellinger is the author of the book Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway. You can follow him on Twitter.