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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 59· No. 3 > Linking the Delta Region With the Nation and the World

Winter 1996
Vol. 59· No. 3

Linking the Delta Region With the Nation and the World

Mud Island river park and entertainment complex in Memphis, Tennessee.

Mud Island, a river park and entertainment complex in Memphis, Tenn., showcases the folklore and culture of the Mighty Mississippi. Mud Island has a river walk, which is an exact model of the lower Mississippi from Cairo, Ill., to the Gulf of Mexico.

This article is adapted from a Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) report of the same name. The report is an update of the progress achieved in transportation and employment the since the 1990 Lower Mississippi Delta Development Commission report entitled The Delta Initiatives: Realizing the Dream ... Fulfilling the Potential. State transportation agencies in the Delta states, other federal and state agencies, other organizations, and many individuals contributed to this update. The FHWA report will be available for distribution in the spring of 1996.

Introduction

The Lower Mississippi Delta area is a unique region at the very heart of the United States. Flanking the mighty artery of the lower Mississippi River, parts of seven states Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, and Illinois form this region.

Although this update focuses on transportation and employment, most of all, it is the people of this vital, diverse, yet distinctly unified Delta region whose input, energies, and love of their homeland have given it substance, character, and culture.

The roots of this report extend to the bipartisan establishment in 1988 of the Lower Mississippi Delta Development (LMDD) Commission by the U.S. Congress. The commission's mission was to study the unique problems of this region and make recommendations for future action.

"Changes in the international economy have created an increasingly complex and interdependent world. The new American marketplace, with its growing dependence on high technology and service sectors, demands skilled labor. Without a competent, literate workforce, there is little reason to expect the Delta to become a vital part of the new global economy ... allowing the people of the Delta to become full partners in the productivity of America."
- The Delta Initiatives Report, 1990

The LMDD Commission, chaired by Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, determined that investment in human capital was the key to building a thriving economy in the Delta and to realizing the human potential of those who call the region "home."

The commission focused on the factors involved in human capital development, natural and physical assets, private enterprise, and the environment. It noted the impacts on human potential and made more than 400 recommendations in what it called a "handbook for action."

These recommendations have served as a guidepost in President Clinton's administration and during the 1996 budget negotiations and reconciliation efforts to balance the budget in a way that reflects the values and priorities of the American people. They are consistent with the president's goals: investing in education, training, and the environment; protecting Medicare and Medicaid; and targeting tax relief to working families.

The riverboat has long been a symbol of commerce on the Mississippi River.Fifty-five of the commission's recommendations were directly related to transportation. Rodney E. Slater, who participated in developing the 1990 report as vice-chair of the Arkansas State Highway Commission, today serves as the administrator of the Federal Highway Administration. He notes, "When you think of transportation, it's about more than concrete, asphalt, and steel. It's about people. People getting to work, taking their children to school, and pursuing their happiness through their travels. Transportation is a tool for people to realize their full potential. Therefore, an investment in infrastructure translates to investment in people."

During a border-to-border, 5,670-kilometer road tour from Buffalo, N.Y., to Laredo, Texas, in 1994, Administrator Slater traveled through much of the Delta region. He saw the towns and roads that comprise the rich tapestry of the Delta, and he listened to the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of the people of the region he too calls "home." One town of 1,200 stood out as a particular inspiration. The town was Henning, Tenn., where the noted author Alex Haley was born and spent much of his life. His early boyhood home today serves as a museum and final resting place for Haley. On his gravestone is a particularly poignant epitaph, "Find the Good and Praise It." The FHWA report embodies that spirit.

The Need for More Jobs

Cotton is a traditional and very important crop to the Delta.As the Lower Mississippi Delta Development (LMDD) Commission well understood, improvements to the Delta region, while important in their own right, could not reach their full potential without linking the Delta to the greater national and global economy. Furthermore, better national and global linkage could itself be a factor in realizing all the other recommendations of the commission. The update of the commission's report was undertaken with that perspective. The most important of all findings of the update is that the improved transportation, the crux of national and global connections, has meant more jobs.

The 1990 report did not downplay the many obstacles to achieving its goals. An economy traditionally based on agriculture had produced, by the 1980s, high unemployment, low levels of income and education, welfare dependency, poor health care and housing, and serious shortcomings in transportation infrastructure. All these factors combined to hold the Delta region and its population back, creating what has been called a "third world" economic and social situation right in the heart of America.

"Jobs." - Buddy Roemer, former governor of Louisiana.

"Jobs." - Annie Brown, community activist.

"Industrial Development." - Malcolm Walls, director of the Delta Blues Festival.

- Answers provided when asked, in the 1989 CNN videotape entitled "Third World on the Mississippi," for the number one need of the Delta region.

Over and over the commission members, staff, and greater leadership community heard from the people of the region that the key to progress was job creation. Government officials, private sector leaders, community leaders and workers agreed that employment opportunities had to precede sustained economic prosperity. Where were the jobs to come from?

The jobs have come, and it's clear that one definite impetus for the commercial expansion that has led to substantial job creation was an improved transportation system.

A Rich Cultural and Historical Context

Highway construction to improve U.S. 61 in Tunica County, Mississippi.The Delta region is not merely an artifact defined by legislation. It has a binding cultural perspective and a sense of place where history is intensely felt and vividly remembered. The Delta's historical perspective of transportation illustrates that highways are about more than just concrete and steel. Rather, they are the tie that binds. Highways are the access to opportunity. Transportation has always been the pathway to opportunity in the Delta region from early roads that allowed farmers to move produce to market to roadways that allowed transport between cities and then between states and across National boundaries. It is the all-important access to the Mississippi River and far beyond, reaching back to memories of the benefits of the first interstate highways in the region.

"The Mississippi Delta is the crucible of Southern culture. Its celebrated Highway 61 crosses the historic landscape of the Native American settlements, slave plantations, blues juke joints, civil rights scenes, agribusiness, third world poverty, and settings from the fiction of Richard Wright and Tennessee Williams. These diverse worlds offer a unique portrait of both the American South and our nation.
- William Ferris, director of the Center for Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi and an internationally renowned folklorist and anthropologist who grew up in Vicksburg, Miss."

The river walk in Helena, Arkansas. The levee walk in Helena, Arkansas.

The river walk and levee walk in Helena, Ark., are transportation enhancement projects

Unfortunately, these roadways have also served as a pathway for our migration over the years for all those who could not find opportunity within the region.

The Delta region and its people now look forward hopefully to new and improved highway access, including intermodal connectors that will more securely connect the region to the entire world. This connection can be the door to increased success and commercial expansion in dynamic international markets. In the Delta region, transportation remains a master key to access, development, job creation, and opportunity.

Transportation Is a Key to Progress

Increase in Employment 1990-1995: National vs. Delta Region.Most of the 55 transportation recommendations submitted by the commission in 1990 involved highway improvements. FHWA initiated an update of the Delta Initiatives report as it specifically related to transportation issues in 1995. This initiative was put into action in the spring of that year by Administrator Slater, in cooperation with the seven state transportation agencies within the Delta region.

After months of study, discussion, and fact finding, the bottom-line results are clear. Between 1990 and 1995, nearly all the highway-related recommendations of the commission have been substantially or partially implemented. A number of aviation, rail, and port recommendations have also been implemented. Not coincidentally, during the same time period, the counties and parishes of the Delta region have cumulatively outperformed the rest of the nation in relative job growth.

The update makes it clear that the connection between transportation improvements and the demonstrated economic improvements in the region is direct, fundamental, and unambiguous. This is the opinion of regional economic development professionals, and it is also reflected in the public transportation referenda and funding measures passed by voters and legislatures in the Delta region.

Public investment in transportation, particularly in highways, is paying dividends in increased economic activity and resultant improvements in employment opportunity and quality of life throughout the Delta region. This has occurred despite numerous adverse economic developments, such as the closing or planned closure of some U.S. military bases, disastrous Mississippi River flooding in 1993, and the stagnation of certain traditional Delta industries such as oil and gas production.

What has more than made up for these negative economic factors is the economic stimulus of significantly increased human capital investment, interregional commerce, and international trade. These powerful, positive stimuli for Delta economies have been made possible in large part by two developments since 1990: (1) significant highway, airport, and port improvements, and (2) major national and international government initiatives.

Legislative Landmarks and International Trends

The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA) had a dramatic effect on transportation efficiency improvements in the Delta region. State transportation agencies throughout the region discovered, in the provisions of ISTEA, the funding resources and policy encouragement they had long required to move forward with implementation of much-needed transportation projects.

Visitors at the Memphis zoo.Not only did ISTEA increase authorization levels for highway and transit programs and restructure federally aided highway programs, it also gave the states increased flexibility within those programs. It is that flexibility that has enabled federal highway program funding to participate in the most cost-effective and highest priority projects of state transportation agencies and metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs).

The National Highway System (NHS) program that is included in the restructured federal-aid highway program has had a definite positive impact on the seven states of the Lower Mississippi Delta region. More than 217,000 km of highway in these states are eligible for funding through NHS and Surface Transportation programs. NHS includes about 95 percent of the proposed Delta Transportation Network recommended by the 1990 commission. Four NHS high -priority corridors are partially within the region, including the important corridor between Houston and Indianapolis.

The central importance of ISTEA and NHS to the revitalized transportation network emerging within the Delta region is clear. NHS forms the backbone of the region's transportation system. It will connect roads serving major multistate and intrastate corridors. It will also include key connections to major intermodal terminals in the region. All this serves to strengthen the impetus for economic growth and new employment in the Delta region.

The impact of international events and trends on the economy of the Delta region has been mixed between 1990 and 1995. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) of 1993 and the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT) of 1994 lowered trade barriers and included specific agreements on transportation among their many provisions. However, the two import/export markets of most importance to the Delta region, Canada and Mexico, have both gone through periods of growth and recession in opposite cycles during this period.

In December 1994, President Clinton hosted a Summit of the Americas in the gateway state of Florida. There, the 34 democratically elected leaders of our hemisphere agreed to establish a free trade area of the Americas by 2005. The president called it a historic step that will produce real opportunities for more jobs and solid, lasting prosperity for our peoples. The Southeast and the Delta region are strategically located to play a crucial role in the growth of the hemispheric trade.

The most significant changes for the Delta economy have been improved access to intermodal transportation terminals, combined with the increased capacity of those terminals. This has greatly strengthened the region's commercial linkage to the rest of the nation and to increasingly important international markets around the world.

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