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Major highway projects keep Mississippians moving

More than anything else, transportation in Mississippi means traveling by highways, and the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) stays busy trying to build and maintain those roadways. MDOT currently has $4 billion in highway construction under contract. South Mississippi is getting a big share due to the destruction of Hurricane Katrina, but major projects are on tap all over the state.

MDOT is finishing the environmental stage for Interstate 69 which will run from Collierville, Tenn., to U.S. 78 in Mississippi and then to the West toward I-55. Executive director Butch Brown said the department will move quickly to purchase right-of-way for the highway that will link to U.S. 78 and be renamed I-22 from Memphis to Birmingham.

“It will open up Northwest Mississippi like Northeast Mississippi,” he said. “That’s a vibrant area.”

Four laning of the much-traveled Mississippi 25 between Jackson and Starkville is nearing completion. A six-mile section was recently opened to four-lane traffic in Oktibbeha County between the Winston County line and the Starkville Bypass. Two sections in Winston County will open soon.

The new Greenville Bridge across the Mississippi River is moving along with the main span nearing completion. A contract for the Mississippi approaches was let in March 2005 and is scheduled to be complete in April 2008. The Arkansas approaches are on the same timetable.

Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall says the complete re-do of the Clinton/Raymond Road Interchange on I-20 is quite a project and is on schedule for completion in October 2007. “It was just not built for the amount of traffic going through there,” he said.

The project includes the complete reconstruction of the interchange, including new bridges, a new loop in the southwest quadrant to improve access to the interstate, improving U.S. 80 to five lanes to Springridge Road, installation of signals at all interstate ramps, lighting and landscaping.

The ongoing stack where Interstates 20 and 55 converge with U.S. 49 is a major point to the thousands of vehicles that move through the area each day. Phase III, reconstruction of the I-20/U.S. 49 Interchange, is done. A contract for Phase IV should be awarded late this year or early next year. This phase includes a new roadway from Gallatin Street to State Street.

A lighting project along I-220 that connects I-55 and I-20 in the metro Jackson area is behind schedule and the contractor is paying $600 per day in penalties.

Booming Madison County

Looking to booming Madison County, Hall said two more lanes will be added to I-55 between County Line Road and Old Agency Road and another new interchange between Ridgeland and Madison will be added on I-55.

“It will be a big project and will include frontage roads. Developers love frontage roads,” he said. “There will probably be a project on I-55 North for the next 50 years.”

I-20 is not left out either and plans call for additional lanes in Rankin County from Pearson Road (Highway 468) to Greenfield Road (Crossgates). Hall said MDOT hopes to begin this year.

A new interchange on I-20 in Meridian that will have access to an industrial park is also on the horizon. Hall said the environmental study is complete and the engineering/design phase is underway.

More traffic lanes are coming for burgeoning Lakeland Drive (Mississippi 25) in the metro area. Hall said the Transportation Commission hired an engineering firm to begin studying the addition of lanes from Airport Road to Highway 471.

Brown says Lakeland Drive keeps going and developing toward the East. “We opened additional lanes a few years ago but people are moving farther away from town and commuting. New corridors bring more commercial development and that brings more traffic.”

Growth south of Jackson

There’s growth south of Jackson, too. An environmental study has been done to add additional lanes on U.S. 49 South from Richland to Florence. “We intend to do it. It’s not just pie in the sky,” Hall said. “I estimate it will start in 2008. This and other projects have been postponed for three reasons — the rising costs of everything used in highway construction, the $260 million the Legislature took from our budget and Hurricane Katrina.”

The commissioner said although lawmakers did not take any funds from MDOT’s budget last year or this year, monies taken a few years ago are now catching up and delaying projects.

Rebuilding from the destruction of the hurricane hurts the department’s cash flow. “We get a100% reimbursement from the federal government for these projects,” he said, “but we must pay for them and wait to get reimbursed.”

Good infrastructure

Another project that has been postponed is an $18-million project to add two lanes to Mississippi 463 from I-55 to downtown Madison. Hall said he had hoped to add the badly needed lanes this year but now doesn’t know when the work might begin.

“We have plenty to keep us busy because of growth in population and development,” he said. “That’s all good. The Nissans will locate where there is a good infrastructure. If we don’t have it, they won’t come.”

When Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Mississippi Gulf Coast, she destroyed or damaged key roads and bridges that are the transportation lifeline of the area. MDOT went to work immediately to restore and repair those roads and bridges while continuing with other projects.

Southern District Commissioner Wayne Brown says there’s a great deal going on to restore these vital links. “Our commerce and government depend on having a good transportation system, and we have to build it and maintain it,” he said.

David Seysfarth, project engineer in MDOT’s Gulfport office, says the department had lots of work lined up for years and years on the fast-growing Coast even before Katrina made her unwelcome visit. He is pleased with the speed of the rebuilding process.

The bid for the Bay St. Louis U.S. 90 Bridge linking Hancock and Harrison counties was awarded at a cost of $266 million. Two lanes of traffic will be open by May 16, 2007. The bridge will be a high rise, not a draw bridge as the old one was, with four lanes, emergency lanes and a 12-foot pedestrian lane.

Center of controversy

The Biloxi Bay Bridge on U.S. 90 connecting Biloxi with Ocean Springs is crucial, too. The second round of bids was taken by MDOT the first week of June. GC Constructors of Kansas City, Mo., won over three other bidders for the $338.6 million project. Two lanes will open in mid-November 2007.

The bridge has been the center of controversy regarding its size and design. It, too, will be a six-lane high rise with break down and pedestrian lanes.

Brown said everyone is not happy with the design. “Any time we build a large highway project there will be some discontent. We’re not going to please everyone with these big projects,” he said. “I just wish the date was earlier. If it was left to the commissioner, and it was just my decision, I think it would be earlier.”

The commissioner said aesthetics are important to mayors who want bridges to look good, and these two new bridges on the Coast will be more attractive than normal. “First of all, they will be functional. Second, they will look good,” he said. “These are landmark bridges and we want people to know they’re in a special place.”

U.S. 90 took a severe beating from Katrina, especially the 29 miles from Henderson Point in Pass Christian to Point Cadet in Biloxi where much of it washed out. Quickly, debris was hauled off and drains were cleared. Holes were patched and temporary signals were erected. Temporary lanes, in some cases only one, shifted from side to side and were open only to emergency workers and residents who lived south of the CSX railroad tracks. Within 90 days of the storm, however, all four lanes opened to the public.

“Now we will restore the highway to the way it was before Katrina with all new curbing, striping, overlay, signals and landscaping,” Seysfarth said. “We will also have new sidewalks up to ADA standards where possible.”

The project is now in design phase and will go to bid some time next year. In Harrison County, the highway will be basically reconstructed. Damage to this major route was not so heavy in Hancock and Jackson counties. Seysfarth said a lot of roadway lighting was destroyed in all three counties and will be restored along with permanent signals.

The Interstate 310 connector to the State Port in Gulfport has met opposition from Gulfport residents and leaders who fear an elevated section will be detrimental to the downtown area. Planned before the hurricane, the project is important for getting 18-wheeler trucks from the port to Interstate 10 and avoiding congested U.S. 49.

“We are working on the middle portion from 28th Street to I-10 now and delaying the southern portion,” Seysfarth said. “We will go ahead and build what we can now to keep the wheels turning.”

Mississippi 605, the Cowan-Lorraine Road extension, will make the Traditions development accessible and connect to Mississippi 67 for an evacuation route. The interchange at Traditions in the northern part of Harrison County will open later this year.

There is a need to look at a new interstate system that will parallel I-10, Brown says. A new route would take large trucks and travelers off crowded I-10 and would not be a commuter highway for local traffic. He estimates the cost would be $700 million.

“I predict this new route will be congested when it’s finished,” the commissioner said. “We can’t build them fast enough to keep up. We need to look at more mass transit and we also need to stop driving so much.”

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

About Lynn Lofton

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