From staff reports
It’s taken decades to transform one of Missouri’s main transportation corridors — U.S. 71 — to Interstate 49.
But history was finally made Wednesday in Joplin when Interstate 49 between Kansas City and Pineville in Missouri became official.
A number of state and national figures, including U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt and Victor Mendez, head of the Federal Highway Administration in Washington, D.C., were on hand during a ceremony held in the gymnasium of the Joplin East Middle School, which has been relocated to the Crossroads Industrial Park in the aftermath of the May 2011 tornado.
Out on the highway, I-49 signs were being uncovered to face traffic.
It was especially gratifying that Mel Walbridge, of Joplin, was recognized for the role he has played since 1986 in pushing this project. His voice and influence helped get the job done.
U.S. 71 along the western edge of Missouri south of Kansas City — a distance of 185 miles — has been upgraded to interstate highway standards, with new interchanges, overpasses and outer roads.
According to the Missouri Department of Transportation, planning for the final series of projects was begun in the late 1980s, with construction beginning in the early 1990s and continuing through 2012. The cost reached nearly $500 million.
Highway officials in Arkansas and Louisiana also are working to complete Interstate 49 in their states. The first section of highway designated as I-49 was in 1984 in Louisiana.
Taken together, Interstate 49 south of Kansas City and Interstate 29 north of Kansas City will cover 1,630 miles of highway. The interstate corridor will link Gulf Coast ports with south-central Canada near Winnepeg.
Safer traveling and improved transportation routes are two of the most important benefits of the completion of I-49. Business expansion is also expected in communities near the interstate.
Drivers will also be able to get to their destinations in less time.
Wednesday’s ceremony was a milestone for the community, as well as all of those traveling through the heart of America.