PORT GIBSON — An alliance of Port Gibson and Claiborne County officials has thrown its support behind efforts to widen U.S. Highway 61 in Port Gibson directly through town along Church Street.
It is a move sure to rankle preservationists who support a bypass to move heavy highway traffic away from the picturesque trees, homes and houses of worship.
Seven city and county elected officials and appointees met with Mississippi Department of Transportation executive director Butch Brown recently to voice support for leaving the highway’s path as is — through the town, said Mayor Fred Reeves.
A letter to Brown dated May 6 and signed by Reeves and Claiborne County administrator James Johnston supports four-laning some portions not already four-laned on approaches to the tree-lined strip. The strip itself, about a mile long, is already four-laned. The letter asks that the impact to trees and lighting along Church Street be minimal.
Reeves admitted the shift is another quirk in a process marked by nine separate alternate routes considered during a period of nearly 20 years, heated public meetings and energized opposition to keeping highway traffic in town.
The letter to Brown calls the stance of local government “unanimous” — the definition of which Reeves indicates is still evolving.
“It is a reversal,” Reeves said, “When I came on board, I was for a bypass, the Board of Supervisors was for a bypass. It’s been flip-flopping all the way around — and it was not unanimous. (A straight route) is more economically advantageous.”
Port Gibson had 1,840 residents in the last census and is the seat of Claiborne County, population 11,800. North of the town, U.S. Highway 61 is four-laned to Vicksburg and on to Redwood. South of town, U.S. 61 is four-laned around Fayette and Natchez and reaches the Louisiana line at Woodville.
A resolution passed in separate meetings of each governing board in February and March presents city and county support for expanding the existing roadway as unified and unshakable.
However, no record of the vote appears on the resolution, and Reeves said aldermen Leslie Case and Marvin Ratliff held out the longest against a route through town.
Case said there was more unanimity among county supervisors to support MDOT’s prevailing track.
“I have mixed emotions about it,” Case said. “I understand homes and businesses are affected and don’t want to have traffic downtown. But, I think the state will do what they want to do. Always, there’ll be someone unhappy.”
Reeves and county Supervisor Ronald Shoulders said they met with Brown. Others they said attended were Johnston, Aldermen Marvin Ratliff and Michael White, Port Gibson City Attorney and Vicksburg Mayor Paul Winfield and Board of Supervisors Attorney Mike Espy.
“I just feel if we don’t let it come through, it’ll be another 20 or 30 years,” Shoulders said, referring to alternatives that would loop the highway around Port Gibson instead of running through it. “I’m very concerned because (the process) has been a while.”
An environmental study is under way by Michael Baker Jr. Inc. engineering firm to determine whether a straight, four-laned highway would result in a net rise in Bayou Pierre, which runs near the north end of town. The study is expected to last through 2011, according to MDOT.
State money totaling $900,000 is marked to finance a design phase in 2012, with no money or construction phase listed for 2013. Use of state money exclusively would not bind the agency to comply with federal laws protecting historic structures along Church Street.
As recently as two weeks ago, Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall, whose region includes Port Gibson, said he believed a bypass route would be selected.
Public meetings in 2007 and 2008 reflected the agency was split, with the other two Transportation Commission members favoring the Church Street improvements.
Brown, former mayor of Natchez, has in the recent past told residents the Church Street approach work was a done deal and also said nothing was definite. If the review along Bayou Pierre finds no impact on the flood-prone section, another public meeting is likely, Hall said.
How the opposition expressed itself since 2008 has been unique.
Live oak trees along Church Street were wrapped in crime scene tape by area residents, and a song, “The Second Battle of Port Gibson,” penned by attorney and former longtime resident Melvin McFatter, made its way to YouTube on the Internet. The Claiborne County NAACP spoke out against using Church Street during an MDOT transportation commission meeting in March.
“From my perspective, there is no change in the stance of the Port Gibson Heritage Trust,” said Al Hollingsworth, a member of the local preservation group.
Hollingsworth said he attended the city board meeting when the resolution was approved, and word has diffused slowly through the community about a looming change in direction among local elected leaders. He described it as “poorly drafted” because it jeopardizes the oak trees and historic structures along Church Street.
Further, he said, city and county officials were asked, likely not in public, to wait for the hydraulic study along Bayou Pierre to conclude before going to MDOT with any show of opinion.
“It makes sense to see what it says,” Hollingsworth said.
Widening Highway 61 is among the final items left over from the 1987 Four-Lane Highway Program, a multibillion-dollar effort to upgrade state highways. Much of 61 through Mississippi is already four-laned, except for Port Gibson and a stretch between the Yazoo River bridge and Leland.