MS 304 is currently a fairly mundane two-lane highway from U.S. 61 at Robinsonville (in Tunica County) to I-55 at Hernando (in DeSoto County). However, MS 304 has a big future ahead of it: carrying two major interstate highways into the Memphis metropolitan area. It will also form the southern third of Memphis' new outer beltway, stretching in a semicircle from Robinsonville to Millington.
The first need fulfilled by the MS 304 highway is to serve the area of rapid growth in northern Tunica County surrounding the gaming resorts at Robinsonville and Commerce Landing (the third-largest legal gambling area in North America, behind only Las Vegas and Atlantic City). While existing highways in the area have been improved as part of the Four-Lane Highway Program and the Gaming Roads Program of MDOT, MS 304 will provide a limited-access freeway connection to Memphis and beyond. Current routes to the Tunica area entail a lengthy trip through urban blight in southwest Memphis on U.S. 61, traversing stop-and-go traffic along Goodman Road (MS 302) in the suburban Southaven/Horn Lake area, or a round-about trip on the current MS 304 via downtown Hernando; the problem is particularly pronounced for commercial bus traffic, which is restricted to the U.S. 61 route. The first section to open will alleviate these problems substantially.
MS 304 will also serve as part of the puzzle in completing the freeway connection between Memphis and Birmingham. While a direct freeway link was suggested at the time the interstate highway system was drafted, an interstate highway along the route was not funded. Since the 1970s, Mississippi has upgraded U.S. 78 from a two-lane highway to a modern freeway using Appalachian regional development funds and state gas tax receipts; Alabama has recently accelerated its U.S. 78 improvement project as well, pushing for completion of its freeway sections by 2005. However, Tennessee has not made any substantial improvements to U.S. 78 over the same period--instead, it has turned U.S. 78 into a stop-and-go city street from the state line to I-240. MS 304 will bypass this gap in the freeway by adding a connector from I-55 to the U.S. 78 freeway near Byhalia. While plans for this section are still only on the drawing board, it is likely that this section will be added to the interstate highway system as part of a Memphis-Birmigham route (most likely numbered I-22).
A third purpose of MS 304 is to provide part of an outer beltway loop of the Memphis metropolitan area. MS 304 will allow traffic from the south (U.S. 61, I-55) to connect to eastbound I-40 and U.S. 64 via a direct connection to the Collierville-Arlington Parkway, and vice-versa. It will also improve access to the rapidly-growing cities of Collierville, Tenn., and Olive Branch, Miss.
Finally, part of MS 304 is designated as part of the proposed Interstate 69 extension connecting Memphis directly to northern Mexico and Canada's two most populous provinces, Ontario and Québec. While some portions of the route remain controversial, if built I-69 will help Memphis stake its claim to be America's Distribution Center.
Interchanges are expected at the following roads:
East of I-55, no final interchange locations have been selected. Plans shown at I-69 public meetings suggest that interchanges would be built at:
North of the state line, interchanges at U.S. 72 and Nonconnah Parkway (TN 385) would be built by Tennessee as part of a southern extension of the Collierville-Arlington Parkway; no number has been chosen for the extension.
Bridges and roadbed are currently being constructed between U.S. 61 just north of Robinsonville (approximately 1/2 mile north of the DeSoto-Tunica county line) and Odom Road. The remaining section has been put out to contract, and clearing of the site for the I-55 interchange has commenced. The contracts do not include any paving on the route; hopefully paving contracts will be let in a timely manner to open the route as soon as practical. This portion of MS 304 will be designated as part of Interstate 69 when the route is completed.
Between I-55 and the Tennessee state line, construction depends on funding availability and the outcome of environmental studies. However, local and state planning officials consider the route a high priority, and the route is part of Mississippi's Gaming Roads program, meaning it is required to be built by state law. According to this article in the March 2001 Delta Business Journal, contracts are scheduled to be let for this section of Highway 304 by 2009, with completion several years later. Incorporation into Interstate 269 might accelerate the construction process somewhat, although funding still remains an issue.
I've moved all the photos to a separate page with thumbnails and captions.