The major roles of two New Albany residents in building and improving Mississippi highways were cited during the Friday morning naming ceremony for Interstate 22.
About 125 people including state and federal officials gathered under a white tent a few hundred feet from the highway as Highway 78 became I-22.
Both Northern District Transportation Commissioner Mike Tagert and U.S. Senator Roger Wicker praised former State Representative John David Pennebaker and former Northern District Transportation Commissioner Zack Stewart, both New Albany residents, for the work they did to bring I-22 and other Mississippi highways into existence.
Pennebaker represented Union County in the state legislature and Stewart was Transportation Commissioner in 1987 when legislation authorized major long-term improvements and additions to Mississippi highways. The law is often referred to as the “1987 Four-Lane Highway Program.”
Stewart was a major proponent of the 1987 program and employed his considerable political skills and seemingly unlimited energy to selling the idea. Pennebaker was considered by many to have been the driving force that propelled the highway bill through the legislature in the face of strong opposition. Both men were present during the ceremony.
Tagert presided at the Friday event and reviewed the work on the Interstate Highway system started by President Dwight Eisenhower. Interstate 22 is the most recent addition to the system which now totals nearly 50,000 miles of four-lane, limited-access highways and has become the nation’s primary transportation asset. It was formally named the Eisenhower Interstate System in 1993 during the administration of President George H. W. Bush.
The Federal Highway Act of 1938, passed at the instigation of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, is sometimes cited as being the early phase of the interstate highway concept, but the idea did not get major momentum until Eisenhower made it a major focus.
Starting much earlier in the 20th century, Ike Eisenhower had had a long education in the need for such a highway system. He was a young brevetted (temporary) lieutenant-colonel in 1919 when he was a part of a truck convoy that the War Department sent from Washington, D. C., to San Francisco as a military exercise. The 3000-mile trip took 62 days to complete.
Officers and soldiers in the 1919 convoy encountered mostly dirt roads for much of the distance. They had to repair about 80 wooden bridges which were broken by the weight of army trucks. In some instances they had to build bridges from scratch where a stream was too deep or swift to ford (cross by driving through the water) and no bridge of any kind existed.
Major repairs to the mixed fleet of trucks, automobiles and motorcycles were a near daily experience in the 62 day exercise.
Eisenhower’s education was extended before and during World War II, when Ike got a close look at highways similar to our present-day interstate system. He saw the German Autobahn, a system of four-lane highways in which the re-enforced concrete pavement is 27 inches thick, and experienced its usefulness for strategic purposes.
Ike never forgot the trans-continental convoy that was instrumental in establishing the need for our current highway system. Many years later Eisenhower referred to the 1919 convoy as one of the major adventures of his long and active life.
For a little more on this subject, See: I-22 leads to prosperity.