By Wally Kennedy
After decades of planning and construction — with a few bumps along the way — Missouri Highway 249 opened Monday with a parade of vehicles.
Becky Baltz, head of the regional office of the Missouri Department of Transportation in Joplin, said district engineers viewed the $78 million undertaking “as a project of a lifetime, and many of them waited a lifetime” to see it to completion.
Highway 249, also known as the Range Line bypass, has 16 bridges, including one that is 75 feet high and the length of five football fields. The 6.2-mile stretch was built to interstate standards from Interstate 44, southeast of Joplin, to Missouri Highway 171 at Carterville. It has three interchanges and a fourth in the works for 17th Street at Webb City.
Baltz introduced a number of speakers, including Brad Belk, director of the Joplin Museum Complex; Rob O’Brian, president of the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce; state Sen. Gary Nodler, R-Joplin; and U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo.
Belk said the Joplin area has a long history of being a leader in transportation, pointing to John Malang, a Joplin resident who was appointed in 1919 as the first superintendent of state highways. Malang advanced the “Lift Missouri Out of the Mud” campaign and helped get a 2-cent sales tax on gasoline to finance a highway system.
As head of the Joplin Special Road District, he spearheaded construction of the first concrete road in Missouri, a seven-mile stretch from Webb City to Joplin and then to the state line with Kansas. Chat, a byproduct of the lead and zinc mining in Southwest Missouri, was used to construct the road. Completed in 1918, it later would become part of Route 66, which would expose Southwest Missouri to the rest of the nation.
O’Brian noted the contribution of Joplin resident Mel Walbridge, a longtime advocate of the bypass. He said he remembered an early conversation about the importance, for safety reasons, of getting truck traffic off Range Line Road in Joplin and Madison Street in Webb City.
The $78 million, O’Brian said, has turned through the economy over the years, generating an economic impact of half a billion dollars. He said the project also will open 1,000 acres, including abandoned former mining sites, to development.
Nodler said his first brush with talk of a bypass was in 1973, when he participated in a meeting at the former Rafters restaurant on Range Line Road that was attended by Gil Roper, with Roper Pontiac of Joplin; D.T. Knight, a Joplin businessman; and Fred Hughes, former publisher of The Joplin Globe. He said they were “most vocal” about the need for a bypass.
Nodler said, “After 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, today we have reached the promised land.”
He also commended the efforts of former U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor, of Sarcoxie, and Blunt in securing federal dollars for the four-lane construction of U.S. Highway 71 from Joplin to the Arkansas line. Eventually, the highway will become Interstate 49, a north-south route from the Gulf Coast to Kansas City.
Blunt commended MoDOT for overcoming the challenge of converting former mining land into a stable roadbed for Highway 249. Enough grout to construct a two-mile, two-lane road was put into the ground to stabilize the underground mining voids near Carterville.
He said U.S. Sen. Christopher “Kit” Bond and former U.S. Sen. Jim Talent helped get federal earmarks for the road, and noted that the city of Joplin and Jasper County put their money where their mouth was in 1993 by providing $6 million to purchase right of way.
At the conclusion of the ceremony, Walbridge, now 80, said: “I think this is fantastic. I really didn’t think I would live long enough to see this day.”
Becky Baltz, head of the regional office of the Missouri Department of Transportation in Joplin, recognized dozens of the people who helped make the project a reality when serious discussions began about 1984. She noted the contributions of Joe Mickes, Kenneth Stalcup and Richard Walter, former heads of the regional office.
After the ceremony, Walter said: “Soon, we’ll have four lanes north, south, east and west. We will be the crossroads of the nation. This project is the tip of the iceberg of what will come.”
By Wally Kennedy
- Joplin Metro
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