Could an interstate end up dividing the Natchez community?
NATCHEZ — Proponents of bringing I-14 through Natchez would say the project is imperative from an economic development standpoint — but could it potentially divide a community.
Former Natchez City Planner Phil Walker has made clear that the pros of the highway would likely outweigh any cons, yet the latter requires careful planning to mitigate these potential shortcomings.
“There are lots of examples of communities where an interstate has gone through and becomes this physical and even psychological barrier that splits parts of a community,” Walker said. “I think the main thing is to at least be cognizant of that potential so that when you’re planning, you can think about ways to avoid that from happening.”
Any city bears that risk when accommodating an interstate that will actually run through — not circumvent — the town.
But Walker said some forethought could prevent a highway from having any sort of divisive effect.
“A lot of times, it just has to do with what’s the alignment of the road, what sort of opportunities are there for overpasses and keeping the current street network intact,” Walker said. “Which can be done, it’s just a matter of engineering. But I think the main thing is being aware of that situation, know that that’s happened in other communities before, and thinking about ways to prevent that from happening.”
The overpass, former mayor Larry “Butch” Brown agreed, is necessary when bringing an interstate through a city.
“You can’t build an interstate system through a city unless you build over it,” Brown said.
Brown, who was also the director of the Mississippi Department of Transportation for 11 years, has had this project on his to-do list for a while. Brown said. He said the U.S. 84/98 corridor — which most officials currently see as the best route for I-14 — is already up to interstate standards, with the only exception being the presence of controlled access to the highway.
But planners will have other structural considerations to make, Walker said.
For example, he said one undesirable potential negative effect could be congestion that results from strip commercial development.
While new businesses popping up in and of itself would be positive, Walker said the importance of avoiding the sort of linear development style common in the United States is twofold — it makes for a poor shopping experience, and it can often lead to congestion, which is the antithesis of what an interstate seeks to accomplish.
The way to avoid that, Walker said, is to think “nodally,” meaning to establish commercial centers that have a mixed use rather than just a long, linear, random line of enterprises.
Again, Walker noted that these concerns merely require planning and should not sway people away from an interstate.
“I would say definitely having an interstate go through your community is something that is probably going to bring a lot more positive than negative, and a lot of that is going to be under your own control,” Walker said. “If you can focus on mitigating any negative impacts and leveraging all the potential positive economic impacts, then you’ve got a really good interstate.”
As far as any concerns by Brown about dividing the city, he has none.
The real concern, he said, is covering the expenses of the project.
Though the construction of a new route is not needed — in theory — since the interstate is anticipated to follow U.S. 84/98, the construction of any interchanges, overpasses, service roads will still rack up quite a bill, Brown said.
Because of the project’s magnitude, Brown said he believes a reassessment of the corridor should be done as part of the due diligence the project requires.
“It’s got to be something that’s looked into. It’s got to be something that the community buys into, and it’s got to be something that’s low maintenance.”
But despite the costs, Brown said I-14 is undoubtedly worth pursuing.
“The rhetoric that’s going to be talked about, particularly by conservative Republicans, is going to be, ‘Well, you know, it’s going to cost $8 million a mile to build the interstate … we can’t afford that.’
“Well, in my opinion, we certainly can’t afford not to.”
The question Brown poses about funding is one officials might not have to tackle immediately, but it will eventually determine whether the project even comes to fruition and it will be the subject of this series’ final installment next week.
Part II: Is the Natchez interstate proposal a pipe dream or the city’s saving grace?