It’s no secret that roadways and interchanges with high traffic counts and economic development go together. The Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) tracks the state’s busiest highways and makes these counts available to municipalities, counties, economic development organizations and others because they recognize the importance of this information.
“Yes, we do get a lot of calls about traffic counts,” says MDOT’s executive director Butch Brown. “We try to anticipate the volume of traffic that moves through busy interchanges and intersections. We know that development follows busy interchanges.”
Four of the state’s five busiest interchanges are in Hinds County and the fifth is in Harrison County. Brown predicts that those numbers may change in a couple of years, adding the interchange at I-55 and Highway 304 in DeSoto County to the list. There is also rapid growth occurring in Meridian and at the I-10 and Woolmarket Exit in Biloxi. “The growth is happening as we speak,” he said. “The development in these areas is almost cancerous with growth.”
The busiest in the state?
Interstate 55 is by far the busiest roadway in the state and continues to develop all along that corridor at each intersection. Brown says development is now moving farther away from the intersections in a ripple effect. All interstates and highways in Hinds County are growing with increasing traffic counts.
Another busy roadway, U.S. 90 on the Coast, is beyond its level of service but Brown says there is nothing MDOT can do with it. “We’re in the final stages of study to relocate the CSX railroad and using that line would give us another East-West corridor,” he said. “It will take 25 years, but in reality that would be short to MDOT for highways and development.”
MDOT does 10-year long-range planning, five-year mid-range planning and is required by state law to have a three-year plan that is updated each year.
Because the state agency knows development follows busy interchanges, it purchases no access rights from landowners when buying rights of way, paying them extra for that privilege. With no access, traffic moves through those interchanges better. “We can generally know those counts with a good bit of accuracy and anticipate that when we buy right of way,” Brown said. “Controlled access will bring development.”
He says cities and counties also know development will come. That’s why these entities ask for MDOT’s plans and numbers. “They want to know how our plans will service their communities because they know cross traffic and flow will bring development. One of the most frequent questions is ‘what are the long- range plans for roads going east and west in my town?’”
Anticipating the growth
Based on traffic volumes, MDOT saw the massive growth that would come on Jackson’s Lakeland Drive/Highway 25 corridor.
“We predicted a lot of volume there and added six and eight lanes because of that,” Brown said. “Now, we can see development coming at the intersection of Highways 61 and 304 in DeSoto County and have no access at that intersection. Development will also continue at the Stack in Jackson. With access, that interchange would be chaos.”
Jeffrey C. Altman, an engineering analyses manager in MDOT’s Planning Division, says there are many requests for traffic information and that all traffic volumes statewide can be found on the agency’s website.
With the correlation of transportation and development, Brown is pleased that the State Legislature did not take any funds from MDOT’s budget this year to divert into the general fund. “They left us alone and that’s important to economic development. We can now continue our construction program,” he said. “To keep our funding in tact, we had solid support from municipalities, county supervisors, associations and those who benefit from construction.”
The executive director says it’s important to remember that education, healthcare and fire protection also must have a good system to move people. Growth will be stymied without such a system.
Entering a new phase
Now that the state’s 1987 Highway Program is officially over, MDOT enters a new phase called Vision 21. The mission of the 1987 Highway Program was to provide four-lane access within 40 miles of every Mississippian. The mission for Vision 21, MDOT’s plan for the next 20 years, is driven by level of service and providing economic development.
“For instance, the Gluckstadt Exit, access and frontage road system around I-55 in Madison County were driven by the development of the Nissan plant,” Brown said.
Altman says Vision 21 allows MDOT to build roads and extra lanes where they are needed the most. “Vision 21 is directly based on traffic volumes and how efficiently the roadway can carry those volumes,” he said. “A scoring system is built into Vision 21 that helps keep us working on the most congested areas first. That could be a two-lane road becoming a four-lane or a four-lane interstate becoming a six-lane interstate.”
In a preview of good things to come, Brown explained that a new program was begun 10 months ago that will prove to be important for the state. It’s called HELP, Highway Enhancement through Local Partnerships, and will funnel $2.6 billion into the state’s transportation system.
Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at firstname.lastname@example.org.