Local leaders ‘elated’ at passage of $1 trillion infrastructure bill that includes I-14

Published 3:46 pm Monday, November 8, 2021

NATCHEZ — On Friday, the U.S. House approved a $1 trillion infrastructure package that includes building onto Interstate 14.

The planned interstate corridor extends 1,300 miles from Interstate 10 in Texas to Interstate 20 in Augusta, Georgia, and would loosely follow U.S. 84’s current path across Mississippi, passing through Natchez, Brookhaven, Collins, Laurel and Meridian before entering Alabama.

While Interstate 14 is still decades from completion, Friday’s official designation is a first critical step toward it becoming a reality.

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The House passed the measure 228-206 with the majority of support coming from the Democratic side of Congress. Thirteen Republicans supported the legislation and six Democrats opposed it once the original $2.25 trillion proposal that President Joe Biden unveiled in March, known as the American Jobs Plan, had been stripped down.

The infrastructure measure cleared the Senate in August with bipartisan support.

Natchez Inc. Executive Director Chandler Russ, who oversees the economic development authority for the Miss-Lou region, said the good news has been long-awaited.

Russ serves as part of a five-state coalition that has advocated for federal funding of Interstate 14 for several years running. Russ and other coalition members of Mississippi have been a part of the effort for four years and members of the coalition in Texas have been at it for about six, he said.

“I was elated, as you can imagine, when I heard the news,” Russ said. “It has been a long road. There is a Chinese proverb that goes, ‘A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.’ We’ve now taken the first step. This is what it’s about — the long game of economic development that will improve our competitiveness for economic prospects over many years and generations to come.”

The bill is awaiting President Joe Biden’s signature before it comes to fruition. After that, Russ said there would be another waiting period filled with environmental and technical studies for the interstate itself. However, the promise of an interstate passing through the area in the next decade or two is enough to give the Miss-Lou an economic boost, he said.

“It will take some time but we should start to see some minor signage about the I-14 corridor in the near future,” he said. “Companies make investments with a 20- to 40-year outlook. Being able to check that box of ‘interstate accessibility’ is going to be highly important for us and allows us to compete for additional projects that maybe we would’ve missed out on in the past.”

Ross Tucker, president and CEO of the Jones County economic development authority in Laurel and member of the Interstate 14 coalition said the passing of the bill comes as a “huge victory” for the State of Mississippi and all its partners who helped make it happen.

“It is wonderful to see all the years of work come to fruition,” he said. “This is the first domino that had to fall for the future interstate and it has been great to hold hands across county lines and across congressional lines to make it happen.”

Tucker said in the beginning stages, the Interstate 14 would have terminated at Laurel but Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia joined in the effort with Louisiana and Texas to extend it further.

“The more states we had on board, the easier it passes,” Tucker said. “Anything that adds to that east to west corridor enhances the quality of life and quality of place here as well as other parts of the area. It was a large conglomerate of folks who all worked together to achieve a goal that will have an impact in the years to come.”

In addition to the interstate, Russ said more funding opportunities were included in the bill that could directly impact the Miss-Lou, including $66 billion for railway improvements, approximately $50 billion in port facility improvements and $60 billion for internet and power grid improvements that would add broadband and high-speed internet capabilities in rural communities or residential and commercial customers.

Adams County Supervisor Angela Hutchins said these are all pots of allocated funds that fit needs which Adams County can lobby for, she said.

“I am very elated,” Hutchins said. “We’ve been in support of getting an interstate here for the longest, lobbying on up to the congressional level and also talking to our local legislators about this bill. I’m very excited to finally see it pass and can’t wait to get it started. … The additional money there could also help us procure funding for our port that will help us address drainage issues and secure economic prospects.”

Natchez Mayor Dan Gibson also expressed enthusiasm about the passage of the bill.

“It will be a while before the funding is actually there and an interstate is built, but right now we can at least ride along U.S. 84 and understand it is the future I-14,” Gibson said. “The most important reason for getting this done is because, in economic development, any time someone looks at your community they send you a questionnaire and one of the questions is proximity to a major interstate. Natchez has never been able to check that box and now we can.”

This particular bill, Gibson said, does not include the $3.3 million funding for resurfacing Morgantown Road as the original infrastructure bill had. He added lobbying efforts for Morgantown Road would continue at both the state and congressional levels.

Gibson added Interstate 14’s designation could provide leverage for funding the lighting of the Mississippi River bridges that carry U.S. 84 between Natchez and Vidalia.

“Even though the actual interstate isn’t there now, its designation is there and that opens the door for us to get more funding for projects related to U.S. 84.,” he said. “One of those projects is lighting the bridge. We’re making a trip to Washington in early December and one of the items we’re going to lobby for is funding to help us in lighting the bridge.”

Vidalia Mayor Buz Craft agreed an interstate would be an economic booster for the Town of Vidalia as well but questioned what it would look like for the town’s existing infrastructure.

“I have questions about the logistics of an interstate and what it means for our existing roads and businesses here but do I think it is great for our area economically and commercially,” Craft said. “We’re going to get those bridges lit but I see that as a stand-alone project that is separate from this.”