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U.S. 51 project overrun causes business interruption, but…

In March 2003, the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) awarded a contract to widen U.S. 51 to five lanes in the cities of Ridgeland and Madison to APAC-Mississippi Inc. Construction began in June of that year on the $14-million project that ran from just south of the Natchez Trace Parkway in Ridgeland north approximately five miles to the Madison city limits.

According to MDOT, the reconstruction project was designed to alleviate traffic congestion through the growing Madison County cities. It included widening of the existing roadbed, construction of numerous intersections, addition of traffic signals and cameras and reconstruction of the drainage system along the corridor.

But, the project soon ran into snags. According to MDOT officials, problems with “unsuitable soil foundations” at the site forced modifications to the original contract. The change included the addition of chemical treatments to stabilize the soil, removal of unsuitable soil from ditches along the roadway and the hauling in of replacement soil. Other factors cited for the delay were strong business growth in the area and extensive utility relocation.

In August 2005, MDOT officials announced work would continue through the summer of 2006. Then in July 2006, it announced work would not be completed before the summer of 2007. While the Ridgeland portion of the project wrapped up in July 2007, work continued on the Madison segment. It wasn’t until the fall of last year before the project was completed.

Congestion and dust

The unexpected, lengthy overrun of the project caused serious problems for area businesses, their employees and their customers. Closed lanes and heavy equipment and work crews made getting to and from the area a headache.

Juan Macas, manager of Mexican restaurant El Ranchito, says, “Sometimes, there was only one lane open, and they even blocked our entrance. It was very bad.”

Rosie Vassallo, executive director of Madison the City Chamber of Commerce, says many of her members expressed frustration and serious business interruption. People avoided the area due to the congestion, and the problems did not end there.

Pharmacist Sandy Reves of Madison Discount Drugs says the project really hurt her business, which she and her husband, Dennis, have owned for more than 15 years. One challenge was signage — or the lack thereof.

“A year before work began, we had our sign taken down as requested so they could begin work. That was nearly five years ago now,” she says. “We still don’t have our sign up, and it has definitely hurt business.”

She adds that Madison Discount Drugs received constant phone calls from customers asking how they could get in and out of the area. Working like traffic controllers, she and her staff would advise customers on which side streets to take or other alternate routes available.

Bringing in on that soil created a manmade dust storm during the project. Area businesses reported a housekeeping nightmare. Every time someone opened the door, the dust followed. Reves says the dust was a constant challenge, especially to a business that is handling drugs and needs to offer a clean, safe environment.

Room to breathe

Fortunately, the construction project is complete, and area businesses and residents are reporting a vastly improved U.S. 51. The traffic count, which MDOT has given as 25,000 commuters per day, has rebounded, and the noise, confusion and dust are a thing of the past.

Reves and Macas both report smoothly flowing traffic. For Reves, getting the sign back up is critical, but generally she was positive about the changes, though she hesitated when asked was it worth it in the end.

Vassallo says, “I contacted Madison Ace Hardware, and they said business has definitely picked up, everyone is much happier, less dust in the store and congestion is a thing of the past.”

Commercial real estate firms also took a hit from the project. Prospects were sometimes scared off by the construction that seemed as if it would never end. But they, too, are reporting a much better environment.

“Yes, traffic congestion on Highway 51 before was bad for business, and hard on your nerves,” says Steve Kennedy of Kennedy & Co. Real Estate of Ridgeland, which handles commercial and residential real estate as well as relocation and development services. “People I know, including myself, tried to avoid 51 if other routes were available. Business had to suffer due to the orange barrels and limited access to get in and out of parking areas.

“Now, things are much more wide open and nicer. Highway 51 still has its peak moments like many other areas, yet you are able to see what new stores have opened without worrying as much about the cars around you. What an improvement, and, yes, prospective businesses are taking a new look at Highway 51 and West Jackson Street in Ridgeland.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at wally.northway@msbusiness.com.

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