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WASHINGTON–The federal co-chairman of the Delta Regional Authority told members of Congress and key congressional staffers Thursday that a four-lane connection from Interstate 55 in Batesville, Miss., to Interstate 40 in Brinkley, Ark., could further enhance the region’s position as one of the nation’s logistics and distribution hubs.

Pete Johnson of Clarksdale, Miss., the DRA federal co-chairman, discussed the issue during a luncheon meeting on Capitol Hill.

The proposed route would include a new four-lane bridge over the Mississippi River at Helena-West Helena, Ark.

“The Helena bridge is the only bridge over the Mississippi River between Memphis and Greenville, Miss.,” Johnson said. “It’s imperative that it be improved. The Batesville-to-Brinkley connector would, in essence, provide a far southern beltway for the Memphis metropolitan area. This likely would produce economic benefits for Memphis since it would reduce traffic congestion and improve air quality there. I can assure you that air quality and traffic concerns play roles in economic development decisions.”

Johnson said the Batesville-to-Brinkley connector also would provide an alternative route for the nation’s heavy east-west traffic flow should a major earthquake occur along the New Madrid Fault, closing the Interstate 40 and Interstate 55 bridges at Memphis. Such an earthquake could create severe economic problems for the country since Memphis has become one of the world’s top logistics and distribution centers.

“A four-lane bridge south of the most likely spots for a devastating earthquake would give the nation a needed safety valve,” Johnson said. “We have to keep those trucks moving from east to west and from west to east to supply our citizens with the goods they need for daily life.”

The New Madrid seismic zone covers parts of Tennessee, Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri and Illinois. The fault system stretches south from Cairo, Ill., through the Bootheel region of Missouri and into northeast Arkansas. It also covers parts of west Tennessee near Reelfoot Lake. Because of the geology of the area, large earthquakes in this region have the potential for more widespread damage than major West Coast earthquakes.

During the past 15 years, Memphis has emerged as a transportation, distribution and global logistics center. Memphis International Airport is the world’s busiest cargo airport. Memphis has earned that distinction since the Airports Council International began measuring cargo hubs in 1991.

Memphis is the nation’s third largest rail center, it has the fourth largest inland port and it’s home to one of three Northwest Airline hubs. Memphis also is the world headquarters of FedEx. Memphis serves more major metropolitan markets overnight by truck than any city in the country. If a product is shipped from Memphis, it can reach 45 states, Canada or Mexico by ground in two days or less.

“Memphis also has more experienced logistics workers per capita than any other city in the country,” Johnson said. “We can build on those strengths and improve the economy of the entire region by making additional transportation investments. New routes and new river crossings are needed to relieve congestion at points such as the Interstate 40-55 interchange in West Memphis, Ark. For interstate truck traffic that doesn’t require a stop in Memphis, the Batesville-to-Brinkley connector would provide an alternative, thus reducing congestion for those vehicles that do have to go through Memphis. It also would give companies with Memphis area operations the comfort of knowing that a nearby four-lane bridge exists just to the south of the most dangerous areas of the New Madrid zone.”

The DRA is a federal-state partnership that covers parts of Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee. Johnson serves on the DRA board with the governors of the eight states. Gov. Bob Riley of Alabama is the state co-chairman.

The DRA operates a highly successful grant program in each of the eight states. This program allows cash-strapped cities and counties to leverage money from other agencies. The DRA also has expanded its regional initiatives in the areas of leadership development, transportation, health care and information technology.

Those interested in more information on the authority’s activities can go to

Last year, the DRA unveiled its Delta Development Highway System plan. The plan was developed following input from transportation executives and local organizations in the eight states. Public meetings were held throughout the region. The U.S. Department of Agriculture funded the plan. The findings and recommendations were presented to the Bush administration and Congress for consideration. The proposed Delta Development Highway System consists of 3,843 miles of roads throughout the region. The estimated cost to complete the planned improvement projects along these roads is $18.5 billion. Of the roads in the plan, 27 percent provide four or more travel lanes already. The remainder are two-lane roads.

The DRA currently is working on a multimodal transportation plan for the region, which was mandated by Congress in the most recent highway bill. The multimodal plan, which will be completed in July, will build on the work done in developing the highway plan. The multimodal plan will address aviation, passenger rail service, freight rail service, short-line railroads, highway transportation, intelligent transportation systems and waterways.

“Improving the transportation infrastructure of the Delta is a focus for us,” Johnson said. “When Congress created the DRA in 2000, one of the investment priorities listed for the authority was the Delta’s transportation infrastructure. We’re already a distribution and logistics hub. But we must continue to invest in the transportation infrastructure in order to lower the cost of doing business. Public investments in our transportation infrastructure will strengthen the region’s economic position and in the process provide more good-paying jobs for those who live in the Delta.”