WHAT'S NEXT FOR MISSISSIPPI

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Published: March 23,2009

Approximately 20 days after President Barack Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act into law, some of the infrastructure projects the bill will fund began taking shape.

On March 9, the Mississippi Department of Transportation, which will eventually spend $354 million on projects around the state, announced the initial beneficiaries of the money.

All the projects are in South Mississippi and include paving and overlaying roads to bridge replacements and welcome center improvements. All told, the first phase carries a price tag of $4.5 million. MDOT will let contracts in March or April.

The distribution plan for repair and improvement funds from the stimulus, according to an MDOT statement, is designed to maximize job creation and economic development.

There was no definitive word last week on what region of the state’s infrastructure would be targeted next. MDOT offcials had not returned a week’s worth of messages seeking comment when the Mississippi Business Journal went to press.

When MDOT selects work for the Delta, Ed Johnson, CEO of the Delta Economic Development Center, hopes the access roads to the Port of Greenville make the cut, which he said desperately need widening.

“The roads going in and out of the Port of Greenville right now are quite narrow,” Johnson said. “During harvest season, trucks and 18-wheelers back it up for almost two miles. I’m telling you, it’s treacherous.”

Johnson was in Washington recently with Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall to push the need for improvements to the road.

Aside from clogging access to the port, the narrow road is a major concern for potential industry.

“We probably turn away two clients a month who want to do business at the Greenville port because we don’t have all of the infrastructure that we need to be fully functionalized,” Johnson said. “We just need to have more room.”

More room on an economically critical road is a concern in Pontotoc County, where Highway 15 between Pontotoc and New Albany has become the center of new business.

Cecelia Derrington, executive director of the Pontotoc County Chamber of Commerce, said four-laning the road would ease severe traffic congestion, especially during a shift change at one of the town’s manufacturers.

“The main reason (it needs four-laning) is all the factories and jobs alongside that highway,” Derrington said. “When you bring (a business prospect) in to look, the first question they ask is, ‘How close are you to a four-lane highway?’”

The highway, whose surrounding areas boast some of the best public school districts in the state and feature a workforce that has caught the eye of major manufacturers such as Toyota, is home to two industrial parks. Derrington hopes one of the parks, with the promise of a forthcoming four-laning of Highway 15, will eventually attract a tier one supplier for Toyota.

“That is our hub,” she said. “We would like to see it worked on and worked on rather quickly.”

Another hopeful possibility for Derrington is the four-laning of Highway 9 that will connect Highway 6 to Highway 78. MDOT held a public hearing last month in Pontotoc to gather input for the final route the road would take. The new Highway 9 will eventually serve as a major artery for Toyota-related transportation.

Joe Higgins, CEO of the Columbus-Lowndes Development Link, is quick with an answer when asked how he would spend that area’s allotment of infrastructure stimulus money.

“The first place I’d spend it would be on upgrading and overlaying the Industrial Park Road,” he said.

Industrial Park Road in Columbus has seen an explosion of new business the past five years. Severstal, Aurora Flight Sciences, PACCAR and Eurocopter have all set up shop on the road, which offers easy access to Golden Triangle Regional Airport. As part of the deal to land Severstal, the county took ownership of Industrial Park Road, which before had been under state authority. Constant 18-wheeler traffic on the road has damaged it considerably.

“It has gotten beat up. It’s the backbone; it’s where they scrap comes in,” Higgins said.

Traffic congestion has become an issue on the road, Higgins said, because it’s the only access road to the industrial park heavy trucks can use. “We don’t have a choice about doing it,” Higgins said. “We just don’t have the money.”

To reduce some of the traffic build-up, Higgins would like to see MDOT up the target weight limit of Artesia Road to 80,000 pounds, which would offer another access point to the industrial park.

“It’s a project the board of supervisors want,” Higgins said. “It basically gives people a second way in and out of the industrial park to go to work or to ship products in and out. That’s a project that won’t happen unless we get stimulus money.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at clay.chandler@msbusiness.com .

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