VICKSBURG, MS (AP) When the Interstate 20 Mississippi River bridge opened in 1974, local residents welcomed the improvement. Giving east-west traffic four lanes between Vicksburg and Delta, LA, the bridge ended the bottleneck the two-lane U.S. 80 bridge had become since opening in 1930.
The bridge’s opening was the last link in the construction of Interstate 20 through Mississippi. Work had begun in October 1963, in Lauderdale County east of Meridian. Louisiana’s portion of I-20 was finished a few years later, the last link between Delta and Tallulah, LA.
“We looked forward to it with great anticipation,” said John D. Holland, Vicksburg mayor from 1953 until 1968.
With the new bridge, people in the city began feeling freer to, for example, “run across to Tallulah,” Holland said, noting that the U.S. 80 bridge had buffer rails and the narrow width between them made passing oncoming truck traffic scary for some drivers.
“When they were meeting these 18-wheelers [in the opposite lane], that was a big problem,” he said. “A lot of people were scared to go across it. I don’t think it kept people from doing it, but they hesitated –– they didn’t like it.”
The old bridge was closed to cars and trucks in 1998 and is now used only by trains and for a charity foot race each September.
Former Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) Director Kenneth Warren, of Vicksburg, worked on Interstate 20 for much of its construction in the state. His duties included engineering for it and its frontage roads as it was built through Warren County to the bridge.
“Some places on I-20 incorporated the existing route of U.S. 80, depending on what the conditions and the alignment were,” he said. “Through Vicksburg, they had built an 80 bypass. Old 80 used to go under the [Vicksburg National Military Park] arch on Clay Street, to Washington Street and south to the old river bridge.”
When Interstate 20 was constructed, the U.S. 80 bypass to Vicksburg’s south and east became part of the westbound lanes of Interstate 20. The bypass was already constructed and it was natural to incorporate it into I-20, Warren added.
During acquisition of the right of way for the project, approximately 50 to 75 pieces of property had to be condemned by the government, Warren said. And a community called Jonestown –– 30 or 40 residents living near the current site of the Halls Ferry Road interchange –– was “wiped out” in a displacement for the highway.
Though Wisconsin Avenue had yet to be extended south to connect with Porters Chapel Road, MDOT constructed the overpass in accordance with Warren County’s long-range road plan. The interstate itself was paved with concrete, which Warren said was the only time such paving has ever been done in the state. The original pavement is still in use, though it has needed many repairs.
“Thirty years is a pretty good life for something like that,” Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall said of the original concrete paving.
Hall said that, from 1989 until 1998, though Mississippi’s population grew by 4 percent, vehicle traffic in the state increased by 55 percent and truck traffic by 99 percent. Most of that truck traffic is on the state’s interstate highways, and it is predicted to double again.
“We’ve got to rebuild [I-20 through Vicksburg],” he said.
For the 6 mi. of the highway from the bridge to U.S. 61 North, a $10.4-million contract is scheduled to be let by October 2005. It will provide overlaying the road with a layer of asphalt pavement, replacing guard rails, re-grading all shoulders and medians and improving the surrounding landscaping, Hall said.
MDOT also has commissioned a study in preparation for a comprehensive reconstruction project. Federally- mandated construction specifications have been tightened since the Vicksburg stretch of Interstate 20 was built. Initial studies indicate that the road will need to be widened to six lanes and all interchanges will need to be upgraded or completely reconstructed and all left-exits removed.
Hall noted that the initial projections are for that project to cost approximately $140 million and to begin by 2009, but Congress would have to appropriate funding first.
Vicksburg’s interstate-frontage roads also need to be upgraded. Hall said he has heard suggestions that such improvements be made in advance of upgrading the entire system. A master plan will, however, come first.
“We’ve got to get the whole thing planned before we can start talking about pieces,” he said.