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WASHINGTON – Delta economic development advocates asked lawmakers Thursday to prioritize a four-lane highway connecting interstates 40 and 55.

The link between Brinkley and Batesville, Miss., would create a four-lane highway from Little Rock to Atlanta and would serve as a southern bypass around Memphis.

The connector is part of an ambitious $18.5 billion highway program developed by the Delta Regional Authority last year.

Authority officials presented their proposal for the interstate link at a Capitol Hill luncheon with congressional staffers and local officials from Arkansas and Mississippi.

The connector would ease traffic congestion where I-40 and I-55 converge in West Memphis, said DRA head Pete Johnson.

The new road could be an economic shot in the arm for the rest of eastern Arkansas, said state Sen. Henry “Hank” Wilkins IV of Pine Bluff.

“With this connector, it’s going to open up volumes of opportunity to new industry and business,” Wilkins said.

Wilkins’ Senate district extends to the Mississippi River in Phillips County.

The interstate link would include a new bridge over the Mississippi River at Helena, which alone could cost $800 million.

Congress is set to consider a new highway bill next year. The Delta authority is seeking a guaranteed federal funding stream for its nearly 4,000 miles of proposed highway projects.

Funding for the project in Arkansas is not in the state Highway and Transportation Department’s plans, but the state is aware that DRA and others see the connector as a long-range goal, said highway department spokesman Randy Ort.

About 15 miles of U.S. 49 from Helena west to Marvell is four lanes already. The other 35 miles of road west to Brinkley features passing lanes and fits “what the traffic warrants,” Ort said.

Johnson said the interstate connector would provide both economic and safety benefits.

He said he thought the connector would reduce traffic congestion and air pollution in Memphis, a key logistics hub in the nation’s transportation network.

Memphis boasts the world’s busiest cargo airport and is the nation’s third largest rail center.

It would also keep that network operating in the event a catastrophic earthquake renders the I-40 and I-55 bridges at Memphis impassable.

The bridge at Helena would be just outside the New Madrid seismic zone.

“A four-lane bridge south of the most likely spots for a devastating earthquake would give the nation a much-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 Delta authority was created by Congress to promote economic development in 240 counties in Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Louisiana, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky and Alabama.