By Andy Ostmeyer
JOPLIN, Mo. —
David and Julie Holloway remember when traveling from McDonald County to Joplin took an hour or more along U.S. Highway 71.
Passing was irritatingly impossible, getting caught behind slow-moving farm vehicles was irritatingly easy, and failing to slow down through Goodman risked another irritant: a speeding ticket.
Driving through Pineville, Anderson and Neosho meant stopping, which was usually a hassle, but it at least had the virtue of taking travelers by the Dairy Queen in Anderson.
“When we were dating, we had to go through each town,” David Holloway recalled Wednesday.
For years near Goodman, a weathered plywood sign kept tally of traffic fatalities along that stretch of Highway 71 and begged for improvements.
Julie Holloway herself was in an accident on Highway 71, she said.
She had recently graduated from Missouri Southern State University and was carpooling to a teaching job in Carthage with other educators when their vehicle was rear-ended by a truck rig. No one was hurt, but she remembers the risks that the former highway entailed. In fact, according to the Missouri Department of Transportation, the fatality rate is 60 percent lower on interstates compared with the rate on the rest of the federal highway system, and the injury rate is 70 percent lower.
Over the years, the Holloways watched the gradual leg-by-leg projects along the highway, as towns were bypassed, access was limited and minutes of travel time were cut with each new segment.
It all culminated Wednesday with the conversion of U.S. Highway 71 into Interstate 49 from Pineville to Kansas City.
In fact, when Julie Holloway left for work as assistant principal at Carl Junction High School on Wednesday morning, she took U.S. Highway 71; when she returned to her home near Tiff City on Wednesday afternoon, she took I-49, since the new interstate shields were uncovered by highway crews during the day.
“It’s a smooth, carefree drive,” she said.
The improvements have knocked 20 or 30 minutes off her drive time and, more importantly, have made the commute safer. The improvements, too, opened a door for her.
“I wouldn’t have even been able to consider Carl (Junction) as a job opportunity” without the upgrades, she said.
Her daughter, who is a Crowder College nursing student, told her mom recently that the same thing is happening, but in reverse, with students from Carl Junction, Webb City and Joplin traveling to Crowder’s Pineville campus for classes.
Joplin resident Stacia Elliott, 36, is one of those students. She makes the drive three times a week.
“The new road definitely is much better,” she said. “You can set your cruise and just go. I’m very grateful for it actually.”
Without the improvements, Elliott doesn’t think she would have opted for school in Pineville because it would have taken too much time.
“With the new road, Pineville was doable,” she said.
Up and down the highway Wednesday, that’s what city leaders and economic development officials were talking about: the opportunities that I-49 opens up for people and towns.
Gina Ensor, executive director of the Nevada/Vernon County Chamber of Commerce, said having the I-49 designation puts Nevada and other communities along the corridor on the radar of companies that want to be near an interstate. It also will lure more travelers for hotel stays, restaurant meals and tourism.
“There is going to be a lot more traffic,” she said.
‘By golly, we are’
In Lamar, City Administrator Lynn Calton on Wednesday was reviewing letters from companies that are looking at potential communities where they might expand. One of the letters on his desk was from a company that wants to be within five miles of an interstate.
“Well by golly, we are!” Calton said. “A quarter of a mile.”
Mark Elliff, president of the Carthage Chamber of Commerce, agreed that having I-49 running through the area will lead to more jobs and growth.
“Any time you get a designation upgrade to interstate, it is an automatic plus,” he said, noting that having a second interstate — I-44 — will help lure companies.
“It raises the profile for the whole region,” he said. “Like the old Route 66 saying, we are at the crossroads of America again.”
He said the Vision Carthage group is working on upgraded signs along the route to draw in visitors, anticipating more traffic along the interstate.
In Neosho, Mayor Richard Davidson said via email that the I-49 designation will mean more traffic in the long run.
“Unfortunately, until the Arkansas end of I-49 is completed, towns south of Joplin won’t see the full impact of the change for a few more years,” he said. “We’ll continue to promote and support economic development projects that capitalize on the new I-49 designation.”
David Holloway worked for years for the Missouri Department of Transportation as the regional maintenance supervisor out of Anderson. In November, he also became the newest member of the McDonald County Commission.
He knows that having an interstate through the county will mean more traffic, which will bring revenue and growth with the increased freight and tourists.
“There’s great potential,” he said.
AGRICULTURAL IMPLEMENTS are prohibited from operating under their own power on an interstate highway, according to the Missouri Department of Transportation. That means farmers who might have driven tractors or combines on U.S. Highway 71 will have to haul the machinery now that the roadway is an interstate highway.