The potential of full interstate highway status for U.S. 78 from Memphis to Birmingham requires a final, cooperative push from the congressional delegations of three states connected by the highway, which would become I-22.
Tuesday’s announcement that Mississippi’s Department of Transportation will seek $75 million in federal discretionary funds to complete upgrades on the four-lane artery through Mississippi could help expedite gaining full, rather than future, interstate standing.
Two broadly stated goals must be met for Interstate 22 to become reality:
n Complete all necessary upgrades, including interchanges, shoulders and pavement, on the highway’s existing route.
n Connect one end to another interstate highway.
The second goal is soon to be set in concrete. The first connection will be with Interstate 65 north of downtown Birmingham. Alabama’s construction of a new U.S. 78 route from the Mississippi line to Birmingham lacks only the interchange with I-65. Its completion has been assured by the influence of U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, a Republican who is Alabama’s senior senator and ranking member of the key Appropriations subcommittee approving highway funding.
Another connection, to the new Interstate 69 near Memphis, will follow by a few years. Interstate 69 currently exists in two far-apart sections: The original route from Indianapolis to the Blue Water Bridge at Port Huron, Mich., on the Canadian border, and a planned or under-construction 42-mile section from Tunica to the I-40/I-69/TN-300 interchange in Memphis. The southern leg of I-69 will extend to Mexico and become a major corridor for trade with Mexico and Canada.
Interstate 22 would be a fully adequate four-lane link from Memphis through Mississippi and Alabama to Birmingham, on to Atlanta, and other eastern points, plus a link to Mexico and Canada.
Partial funding has been secured for the Mississippi upgrades by the work of U.S. Sens. Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker (who sponsored enabling legislation as a U.S. representative from the 1st Congressional District), both Republicans, and Rep. Travis Childers, D- Booneville, who succeeded Wicker in the House.
Gaining interstate status means all three states on the I-22 route – Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama – would gain 90 percent federal maintenance funding. It’s not a free ride, but it’s as close as it gets in the transportation business.
A four-lane U.S. 78 was a long-held highway dream realized by the separate states’ actions. Interstate standing must be a cooperative and bipartisan venture for mutual benefit.