1,300 new signs now line the highway formally known as 71, following Wednesday’s unveiling of Interstate 49 between Kansas City and Pineville.
U.S. Senator Roy Blunt, once a co-chairman of the I-49 Caucus and later a member of the Transportation Committee, was one of several federal and state officials on hand for the event.
“In 1997 the one thing we wanted to be sure that got done in that highway bill, was to see I-49 still listed as the high priority corridor for the country so that we had a document to refer to every time we were trying to get funding. The Congress of the United States decided this is a national priority. And today as they’re out there taking to cover off the signs, the national priority becomes a national reality,” Blunt said.
The improved thoroughfare is expected to increase safety, as well as provide an economic boost for the region. That’s welcome news for Joplin, whose East Middle School gym hosted Wednesday’s unveiling, and a city still recovering from the devastating tornado a year and a half ago.
Melody Colbert-Kean is the mayor of Joplin.
“This is a key component because it allows the transportation industries to continue bringing their goods through there, which needs to supply our businesses that are rebuilding. So this is perfect for us right now. We couldn’t be happier. And the right time that it’s hitting at,” Colbert-Kean said.
Victor Mendez with the Federal Highway Administration says that total upgrades to U.S. 71 that led to the I-49 designation were around $313 million, $250 million federally funding.
“If you think about today’s economic world, we’re recovering; we know the economy is coming back. But we need more people to get back to work. That’s our number one focus – to get people back to work. And through these types of investments, that’s what we’re able to do,” Mendez said.
The last time an interstate was designated in Missouri was in 1988 when crews unveiled the I-64 project in St. Louis.
Wednesday’s rare occasion prompted Mickey Bulger, a resident of Carterville along I-49, to bring his grandson, who’s in preschool, to witness the historic event.
“Even though he probably don’t quite understand what’s going on, I explained it about the new interstate system, that someday I’m gonna to keep this memorabilia, and that someday he will recognize what he witnessed here. It’s part of history,” Boulder said.
Highway officials in Arkansas and Louisiana are also working to complete Interstate 49 in their states. The first section of highway designated as I-49 was in 1984 in Louisiana.
When completed, I-49 will make up 900 miles. Taken together, I-49 south of Kansas City and Interstate 29 north of KC will cover 1,630 miles of highway.