Natchez’s potential economic gains from a new federal highway come at what cost?
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the last installment in a four-part series about a proposed interstate highway that could run through Natchez.
NATCHEZ — Proponents of bringing a new interstate highway through Natchez water at the mouth over the potential economic gains — but what about the cost of getting there?
While most officials seem to agree that an interstate would be a boon for the city, at the end of the day, governments still must have the capacity to build the highway before any of that can be realized.
So, what exactly does that entail?
The cost of building an interstate depends on a number of variables, such as the surrounding terrain. In 1991, a total cost of the initial 42,795 miles of the interstate system was estimated as $128.9 billion, according to Federal Highway Administration data.
Adjusting for inflation, the cost per mile comes out to approximately $5.4 million.
If I-14 followed the U.S. 84 corridor as officials currently foresee, the highway would extend to Laurel, more than 140 miles from Natchez.
Using the U.S. 84 corridor — which former mayor Larry “Butch” Brown said is already up to interstate standards other than controlled access — is a positive in terms of costs, but Brown noted that constructing interchanges and overpasses would still be costly.
But if the interstate does come to fruition, he said, the state would be over the hump.
“If you can ever get an interstate into your community with the proper interchanges, flyovers, overpasses … then you’ve got a system that the federal government is going to be a partner for the rest of your life,” Brown said.
The feasibility of the I-14’s long-term prospect came up at a recent meeting between city and county officials and state legislators held at The Carriage House in Natchez.
The conversation turned to funding, specifically the infrastructure bill the federal government has been planning to roll out this year. President Donald Trump touted that the bill would inject $1 trillion of infrastructure funding to the country, though the actual amount remains to be seen.
The states, however, will be responsible for coming up with funding of their own as well.
Speaking on the matter at the Carriage House meeting, state Rep. Robert Johnson III, expressed some doubt about future funds, though he supported the project.
Natchez Mayor Darryl Grennell spoke on the three states currently involved on the I-14 initiative, listing them in order from most to least developed in terms of the project: Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi.
Johnson said that order also translates to the states financial situations.
“What you just outlined is a hierarchy of people who have money to build roads and people who don’t,” Johnson said.
The states will have to figure out a mechanism to fund the highway, which could include allocations from gas taxes and sales tax revenue, Gulf Coast Strategic Highway Coalition Executive Director Gary Bushell said.
State legislators also discussed gas taxes at the Carriage House meeting, though they were split on whether they could be increased to support infrastructure.
Speaking about infrastructure generally, Johnson said he thought the state needed to consider an adjustment if it wants to improve the state’s roadways.
“What I’m telling you is, I like the President’s idea. He has the right idea, and he’s also right in that it pays you back because it creates jobs.
“But somebody has to get away from this homogeneous idea of ‘I can’t vote for any tax (increase) …’ There are some things you need to vote for because it’s going to generate money, it’s going to pay you back. Infrastructure is one of them.”
Rep. Sam Mims V, on the other hand, did not foresee voting for a tax hike anytime soon.
“I’m hopeful that the federal government will look at an infrastructure piece of legislation. If you’re asking me if I support raising gas taxes, the answer is ‘no.’”
But in regards to I-14, this year marks a unique opportunity because of the anticipated infrastructure bill, Bushell said.
“Those vehicles only come along (once) every several years,” Bushell said.
And the most pressing issue for Mississippi, Bushell said, will not cost anything other than time — receiving a congressional designation.
Texas is currently the only state with any designated roadways for I-14, and the first 25 miles of the interstate was unveiled in April 2017.
The push for that designation begins Monday, when local officials will attend a briefing in Laurel with legislators and Southern District Transportation Commissioner Tom King in an effort to get the Mississippi Department of Transportation on board.
Grennell, Ward 3 Alderwoman Sarah Smith, District 1 Adams County Supervisor Mike Lazarus, District 2 Supervisor David Carter and Natchez Inc. Executive Director Chandler Russ will attend the meeting
Approximately two weeks later, the same group will go to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 24 and 25 to coordinate with U.S. congressional delegates about the project.
Lazarus possesses a sense of optimism due to the ramped up federal focus on infrastructure.
“Everyone is talking about this being a really long-term deal … I think it could happen a lot faster than people believe,” Lazarus said.
Grennell said the meetings would be important, as he sees the project as essential for the city.
“The reason it’s important to me is that it can open up all kinds of doors for Natchez-Adams County,” Grennell said. “I am extremely confident that it can get done, and I’m excited about the future for our area.”
While a long road lies ahead before the project can “get done,” Monday marks the first step in what could be a massive undertaking for Natchez.
Part II: Is a new interstate proposal a pipe dream or Natchez’s saving grace?