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MDOT planning four-lane connector from State Port to Wiggins

Environmental studies have begun north of Interstate 10 for construction of a four-lane highway to run from the State Port at Gulfport to Wiggins at a cost of $600 million. Officials with the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) say the phase from the port to I-10 could be completed in five years and the leg to Mississippi 26 in Wiggins in seven years. Plans call for the new highway to eventually run all the way to Jackson.

As incredible as it sounds, this project is to be built without a tax increase. According to a proposed funding plan, Harrison County will borrow money over 20 years to fund construction for phase one and MDOT, not the county, will be obligated to repay the funds. The federal government will reimburse 80% of the cost because the highway will be designated as an interstate when completed. With interest, MDOT will owe about $50 million a year, of which the federal government will pay $40 million and MDOT will pay $10 million.

Asked if this project will definitely happen, MDOT executive director Butch Brown said, “Yes, some part for sure. It’s already programmed and we’re currently in the early stages of the Canal Road connector from the port to I-10. We’re already buying right of way for that section and working on the environmental regulations for the next section.”

He says MDOT is serious and committed to build this route. The new highway will be built to interstate standards and designated as an interstate after construction. It will be similar to a 30-mile project in North Mississippi on Highway 304 that will be designated Interstate 69. Tunica County will issue bonds for that $40 million to $45 million project. Bids will be let in January 2005.

“It’s innovative financing that we have not done before,” Brown said. “I heard about it through a national highway association, but it’s never been done anywhere before, so we’re breaking new ground. We’ve tweaked it some and we’ve aligned ourselves with the county to issue the bonds because MDOT doesn’t have the authority to issue bonds.”

He added that the project can not all be done at one time and can be financed over several years. MDOT’s long-range goal is to build an interstate highway from Gulfport to Jackson that will parallel U.S. 49.

“We’re in the early design stages and have identified a route for the northern section from the stack to Star,” he said.

The 80/20 federal-state funding program, with counties and cities issuing bonds, will also be used to build interstate-designated four lanes in Laurel, Marshall County and Madison County, Brown said.

“We have to maximize the use of state money,” he said. “The state is not taking federal money when they divert MDOT funds to the general fund. They’re taking state money, so we must have more of a federalized program.”

The director said MDOT has cut its budget from over $1 billion down to $756 million in response to a state mandate to cut state agency budgets by 20%. He points out that MDOT gets no federal funds until projects are complete. The state must fund projects 100%, then they are reimbursed.

Harrison County Supervisor Larry Benefield said the new four lane is a tremendous opportunity for a new transportation artery for central and western Harrison County.

“It will give us an alternate route we need desperately and open up the rest of the county in a way we haven’t been able to do,” he said. “It will be an opportunity to look at some new development with railroads and highways and be a new spectrum for the port and county.”

He hopes to have an informative meeting with the complete board of supervisors within the next 30 days and to formalize a memorandum of agreement about the bond issue soon after the first of the year.

“I feel very good about it for the whole board,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity for us to move ahead 20 years.”

Moving ahead at a fast pace is what it’s all about, according to Southern District Highway Commissioner Wayne Brown. “We only began discussing this in August and we have to move fast on it,” he said. “We must do that if we keep our construction programs in place and keep our construction partners.”

He said the state cannot do the work the construction companies do and with the loss of state funds must look to federal projects to maintain a viable industry. “The state highways will be woefully neglected because state highways are funded 100% with fuel tax dollars,” he said, “but we are reimbursed for federal projects. I’m excited we’ve come up with this concept and we’re ready to go ahead with it.”

Wayne Brown says the need is certainly there for a new four lane on the Coast with heavy truck traffic from the port and other heavy traffic through Gulfport. He said trucks coming out of the port must go through 19 stoplights and two railroad tracks before they get to Interstate 10.

“This new route will increase the economy of the port and Gulfport. It’s a good move for the economy,” he said. “This method of funding is a way to hurry up a highly important project. We need to build it all at one time and get out of there so drivers won’t have orange barrels for 10 years.”

Commissioner Brown says Mississippi is a pay-as-you-go state, and this funding will allow MDOT to build a highway in seven years and pay for it over 20 years. He says three factors made the project feasible — a funding stream, overriding need and a local government willing to work with MDOT.

“With the growth on the Coast, we need to add lanes every two or three years,” he said. “We have very limited state funding and must keep looking for innovative ways of financing.”

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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