BILOXI — The Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) is proposing a new elevated north-south expressway in Biloxi that would cost between $200 million and $260 million. But the proposal has run afoul of government and business leaders who say the expressway would destroy many homes and businesses, and that a better and much less expensive solution is four-laning existing north-south corridors.
Biloxi Councilman Tom Wall said his district would be impacted by the elevated expressway, said at a recent public hearing on the issue before the city council there were about 500 in attendance. He asked those to stand who preferred a grade level road off the Cedar Lake exit on Interstate 10 instead of the elevated expressway, and about 480 people stood up.
Wall said, though, that MDOT is not listening. “Their answer to me was, ‘We don’t build ‘hamburger roads,’” Wall said. “I said, ‘What do you build? Ego highways?’ We could build two ground-level roads in Biloxi for half the price of the one they want to build. And these roads would benefit the city and the tax base as opposed to the road they want to build, which would add no commercial or residential value tothe city. Something stinks.”
Wall argues that the Coast needs transportation improvements as soon as possible, and an expressway would take many more years to build compared to improving existing roads. He also believes it makes no sense to shoot all that traffic to already overloaded U.S. 90.
“What do you do when you get to Highway 90?” Wall asks. “We already have a severe problem coming off Interstate 110 because people are driving 55 to 60 miles per hour, and we just can’t slow them down. There are dozens of wrecks there. This whole problem is so simple. But there is some hardheadedness in that bureaucracy that is out of control. There should be a state audit of it.”
Wall said elevated highways prevent development on either side of the highway except at the off ramps, and the noisy expressways take away from an ambiance of the city. Businesses and homes are destroyed and property values decline at neighborhoods located near the expressway.
Southern District Highway Commissioner Wayne Brown said that most of the Coast leaders he has spoken with favor the elevated expressway.
“The reason you need an expressway is simply the amount of traffic,” Brown said. “And these ground-level highways will just not flow the traffic. During the rush hour driving Highway 49 in Gulfport from the beach to I-10 can easily take 30 minutes and more. The same drive in Biloxi on I-110 is a five-minute drive. In addition to that, I-110 does not impede the east-west flow. Highway 49 in effect cuts the city of Gulfport in two because it so heavily impedes the east-west flow of traffic.
“Anywhere we would build a northsouth connector at ground level, businesses are going to it — hamburger places, quick stops, and tattoo parlors — and you will see the same kind of condition that exists on Highway 49 today where business and commerce really impedes the traffic flow. We need something to flow the traffic from the beach and other connectors such as Pass Road up to the north. This will be absolutely essential in case of hurricane evacuation.”
Royce Hignight, a retired FBI agent active with Concerned Citizens of Biloxi, said there are no advantages to the route proposed by MDOT.“MDOT has no credibility,” Hignight said. “They came down to us and said they have a legislative mandate to build this overhead expressway. We checked into it, and there is no such thing. The Legislature allows them to build whatever they want to build for the community. They want to come in and cut a swath like Sherman’s march to the sea, and let the community fit back in to whatever they have built.”
Hignight said that MDOT doesn’t appreciate or understand the needs of the Coast and has no inclination to develop and implement the type of transportation plan needed on the Coast.
“MDOT has not followed the legislative mandate to build a $49.7-million four-lane road in Biloxi, but has opted to design and plan for a $200- to $260-million road,” Hignight said. “Likewise, on the Canal Road/Port of Gulfport project MDOT has opted for a $100- to $135-million road instead of the mandated $47.5-million road. Therefore, it would cost approximately $400 million for the type roads MDOT proposes for just these two routes. These are prohibitively expensive proposals unless the citizens are willing to wait for decades into the future. The Coast needs relief now.”
Hignight said the time has come for Biloxi residents, other Gulf Coast citizens and officeholders to take action to assure a sane, workable and affordable solution to traffic problems.
“We must not sit back and allow misguided plans by MDOT and its Atlanta consultants to ruin our transportation system and our neighborhoods,” he said. “MDOT hopes to build a north-south superhighway that will destroy our quality of life and create new traffic nightmares, without solving existing traffic problems. We as a community do not have to accept MDOT’s proposal. We must unite behind a better plan that relieves traffic problems in the near future, with minimum negative impact.”
Gene Warr, president of the business group Coast 21, said he thinks the alternative ideas are justified and reasonable and should be considered.
“I am hopeful that MDOT will consider all of these suggestions and possibly accomplish what we need to do quicker, easier and at less cost,” Warr said.
There is great concern about the traffic problems on the Coast. Although the six laning of Interstate 10 across the Coast is nearly complete, the highway seemed to fill up as quickly as it was enlarged. The increasingly heavy traffic has led to more accidents, and there have been several instances lately of accidents that have closed the interstate for hours. When I-10 is closed and traffic diverted to already over-crowded local arteries, it takes hours to drive only a few miles.
Hignight, Wall and other Coast leaders have called for the Legislature to order a PEER (Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review) Committee investigation into MDOT operations. Brown said he welcomes a PEER investigation. “Anything that can help inform the legislators and citizens, we are all for it,” Brown said. “We publish annual reports setting out where our money comes from. I wonder if they get read. Hopefully the PEER report will cause some of this to get read. If they could come in and show us a better way, a way to improve, we would welcome it.”
Wall said he has great respect for Brown, but believes he has been elected to a bureaucracy that will be hard for him to get a handle on.
Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org or (228) 872-3457.