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Community needs to shape interstate discussion

An interstate through Natchez? The concept must seem as novel to most of us as the notion to my grandparents that we could have a small device in our pockets that lets us connect to virtually anyone in the world and hold virtually millions of books at our fingerps.

As crazy as it may seem, interest in a proposal for a new federal highway, dubbed Interstate 14, has begun picking up some steam again.

Although the plan is in the extremely early stages of the proposal, the general idea is that the highway might travel along the route of U.S. 84 through our area and connect Texas to Georgia and beyond.

Exactly where the highway would be placed is not yet determined.

Exactly how it will be funded is not yet known.

Exactly how it might cross the Mississippi River — using existing bridges or new bridges — is also not been decided.

And exactly when it might be built is not yet known either.

So the highway is surrounded by uncertanties at the moment.

While it may seem a little pie-in-the-sky to start thinking about it at this point, getting geared up for the prospect of Interstate 14 running through our community seems wise about now, before decisions are set without local residents’ input.

In American history the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System truly changed the face of America.

For younger Americans, having a highway system that easily runs from coast to coast is just taken for granted.

For older Americans, they can remember what early automobile travel was like. It was filled with a tinge of uncertainty and adventure. Roads and bridges were not consistent in width or upkeep. Signs were not uniform and getting from one spot to another took a fair amount of navigaonal experse.

In John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley in Search of America” published in 1962 he summed up the inevitable impact of Interstate highways when he wrote:

“When we get these thruways across the whole country, as we will and must, it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing.”

He’s correct.

Interstates and even four-lane highways whose aim is to keep traffic moving quickly did in fact change the face of America.

That’s certainly true of Natchez as well. The section of roadway that runs from Walmart down to the hospital is what older residents call “the  bypass.”

Its construction certainly diverted motorists from downtown stores, fulfilling what Steinbeck suggested in a way. For a period of time you could drive through Natchez without seeing much of it.

That changed as development popped up along the route.

But for sure, traveling by interstate changed what had previously been more of a motoring adventure. The mystery and intrigue in moving from point A to point B was removed and exchanged with predictability, comfort and speed.

Although initially designed to create an artery system to help move military equipment and personnel from coast to coast should we need to defend the homeland quickly, the federal Interstate system quickly became an efficient route for commerce as well.

That perhaps could be the biggest potential impact for Natchez. Although the area has good four-lane access in several directions, having an interstate is more of an official stamp of approval for some industries that seek to move goods and services across the country.

An interstate in Natchez certainly holds the potential to be an economic game changer for the area. But at this point, what’s most important is for the community and its leaders to become energized around the idea and lobby to have it funded.

Simultaneous to that, the community needs to consider questions such as, “Where should the roadway’s path go?” and “What concerns do residents have about the potential of an interstate coming to Natchez?”

Just like the level of amazement someone born in the 1920s might have regarding a modern smartphone, we should be amazed and empowered by an interstate coming here. It’s up to us to secure it and shape the plan for the betterment of all of Natchez.

Kevin Cooper is publisher of The Natchez Democrat.