Proposed road-widening project has supporters, opponents

SOUTHAVEN — The road to progress can be bumpy.

On top of facing funding hurdles, DeSoto County and state transportation officials — gathering public comment for an environmental assessment on possible widening of Star Landing to ease traffic and promote economic development — are finding many residents worried or resistant to change outside their front door or along their fields.

“If we could just get the road fixed, get rid of all those potholes — I’d settle for that,” said Christine Jenkins.

She’s lived with husband William, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers retiree, for some 40 years on Star Landing east of Interstate 55. “Since I’ve had surgery, every bump hurts my back. And we don’t want four lanes with a median in the middle.”

“We’ve raised four children there and loved every minute of it,” said William Jenkins. “Our kids rode horses all over our property,” about 27 acres now. “If you were here, you were home.”

Said his wife: “We don’t like the freeway, we like it to be country.”

“It looks like it’s going to mess things up,” said Merl Miller, 70, who lives on Star Landing west of I-55 near Gwynn Road. “I don’t know how they’ll do five lanes there.”

Some residents are more accepting and open to the development prospects.

Tom Moore, a Southaven auto care shop owner who’s lived 18 years on Star Landing near I-55, said “we went from a gravel road and a very rural setting to what we have now — a more intense setting.”

“But we have to do what we have to do to let our county grow.”

Some 100 Star Landing residents and landowners were specifically invited to a recent public session in Southaven on the Star Landing Corridor.

Greeting them were DeSoto and Mississippi Department of Transportation officials at eight tables, each covered by an aerial map of the proposed east-west widening of about six miles from Tulane Road in the west to Getwell Road on the county’s east. Residents learned of alternatives and design options and how each specifically could impact their property.

“We respect residents’ comments and they’re vital to the process,” said Tracy Huffman, consulting engineer to the county with the Waggoner firm. “We’ll be looking to see if there are concerns we haven’t addressed, and if the comments point to a preferred alternative.”

Public comments will be incorporated into an environmental assessment that’s required by the federal government for the county and state to obtain funding for corridor work, a county priority being assisted by MDOT. The study cost is about $700,000, obtained from federal sources; further steps in the process, including any eventual construction, will cost millions and have yet to be obtained.

The deadline for completion of the assessment is May 2014, after which detailed engineering design and right of way acquisition can begin, said Huffman. He said any “dirt work” may be four or five years away, provided funding is available.

County Supervisor Mark Gardner of Southaven says the county is sympathetic to the disruption of change.

“Tom may lose some of his front yard,” he said of Moore.

“Lots of folks don’t like change,” said Supervisor Harvey Lee of Hernando. “A lot of people have issues, and we’ll look at every one of them. But change can be a good thing. We’ve got to relieve the traffic problems in our county.”

Goodman Road and Church Road are DeSoto County’s major east-west corridors on the more populated north and both already are heavily congested. Planners and engineers say another east-west route would reduce the traffic crunch, promote safety and also open up access to other parts of the county by connecting I-55 and currently “minor” arterial roads such as Getwell and Tulane roads.

“A widened, safer Star Landing may be the primary road they’ll use in the future between I-69 and Church Road.”

Supporters of widening also point to air quality and economic development factors.

In 2011, the average daily traffic count for Star Landing Road was 3,200. The figure is forecast by MDOT to soar to 37,000 vehicles per day between U.S. 51 and Interstate 55, due to planned developments along U.S. 51 and Star Landing and the addition of the proposed I-69 interchange at Star Landing. Meanwhile, traffic on Church and Goodman roads also is expected to soar.

Congestion leads to excessive idling of vehicles, especially during traffic peaks, and results in more air pollutants. The Environmental Protection Agency ruled last year that portions of northern DeSoto County, along with Shelby County and Crittenden County in East Arkansas, be classified as nonattainment areas due to elevated ozone levels.

Reducing congestion by opening more corridors and providing greenways along the route to promote pedestrian and bicycle options would boost air quality, planners say.

Meanwhile, DeSoto County has been identified as one of Mississippi’s fastest-growing counties, and early studies for the Star Landing project envision an eventual scenic route from U.S. 78 in the east to U.S. 61 in the west that could help deliver more than 11,000 jobs and about $1.2 billion annually in economic development. This vision poses a landscaped parkway of 22 miles, capped by a diamond-type interchange at I-55.

Gardner said the county wants to make sure any new development or infrastructure is well thought out, including addressing storm water runoff: “We have to make sure if people build concrete, brick or mortar, we know where that water goes.”

Huffman said that while finding and keeping funding is a challenge, there’s a wealth of time — for now — to prepare and engage the public before the first, six-mile phase.

“It’s very preliminary in the process, but we have the opportunity now to get input that will make a big impact on where we go with Star Landing,” said Huffman. “This is just the beginning of our dialogue with the public.”

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