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Why a highway bypass can be troublesome for some cities

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Posted at 11:03 AM, Nov 29, 2022

Highway bypasses are often spearheaded by state leadership. They pledge to reduce truck traffic and congestion while letting drivers go faster. They often get opposed by the small towns and cities that get bypassed and businesses that miss out on money.

“It’s depressing to go back home to see the place that you love so much. It really feels like it’s on its last heartbeat,” said Two Americas photojournalist, Justin McCray. “The bypass has affected Clarksdale so much.”

Highway 61 follows the Mississippi River from Louisiana to Minnesota. It no longer runs through Clarksdale, Mississippi. It was rerouted as a bypass nearly 20 years ago. 

Johnny Newson has seen the change. He's the president of the county board of supervisors in a county that’s lost tens of thousands of residents. 

“If you have a bypass, which is almost like a U, it’s designed to take traffic around the city, then you don’t have the traffic coming within the city,”  he said. 

A series of studies on the impacts of bypasses have reached mixed conclusions. The consensus is this: If a town is already thriving with a diverse economy, it’s less likely to be affected. If a town is struggling, there’s a good chance it’ll struggle more.

In Clarksdale, the bypass hurt a town already reeling from the loss of nearby employers and the drain of the population up and down the Delta.

“It’s very mind-boggling when you come back six months or a year later, and you see the sign down, and it’s closed, and it’s like, ‘What’s going on?’” McCray said.

Despite the challenges, some people believe they have no choice but to dig in.

“That’s the main reason I live with my town, the city of Clarksdale, on my shoulders because I am Clarksdale. And if I’m successful, then Clarksdale’s successful,” McCray said.