JOPLIN — A 180-mile stretch of U.S. 71 from south Kansas City to Joplin will officially become Interstate 49 on Dec. 12, much to the delight of transportation officials and cities and towns along the route.
U.S. 71 is already a divided highway with a 70 mph speed limit, but the change to an interstate meant eliminating all intersections and cross roads along the route. The Missouri Department of Transportation has awarded $63.3 million since 2009 to remove the crossings and replace them with four overpasses, nine interchanges and three outer roads.The change is part of a long-term goal of having a direct connection from Kansas City south to New Orleans and north to Manitoba, Canada, The Kansas City Star reported.
"This is a tremendous opportunity," said Michael Collins, president of the Kansas City Port Authority. "With regional, national and multinational firms that are looking for logistics centers, many times their first question is, 'What's the interstate connectivity?'"
The change is also welcome in Joplin, which is still recovering from a devastating tornado in 2011.
"For Joplin to go from one interstate to two, or communities between Kansas City and Joplin to say they are now on an interstate, it really creates a sense of connectivity, which we believe will bring economic growth," said Rob O'Brian, president of the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce.
Kansas City SmartPort, a nonprofit organization promoting the region as a logistics hub, is also happy about the interstate.
"Four interstates is a big deal compared to three," said Chris Gutierrez, SmartPort president. "It opens up that whole southern region."
Trucks make up 30 percent of the traffic on U.S. 71, which is the second-busiest freight artery out of Kansas City, according to the Missouri Department of Transportation.
The federal government paid for 80 percent of most of the Missouri projects, with four projects funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
The section of highway south of Joplin is complete to Pineville, about five miles from the Arkansas border. The highway will someday connect to a bypass near Bella Vista, Ark. Missouri was prepared to build its portion of the bypass, estimated at $40 million, but Arkansas said it did not have the money for its section. The Missouri Highway Commission then decided to focus on the section north of Joplin.
"We do not want to build a four-lane freeway that dead-ends at the state line," said Sean Matlock, MoDOT's manager for the I-49 project.