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MDOT’s highway projects back on track

Highway projects all over the state are back on track now that the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) has its state funding fully restored. Even though MDOT is considered a special-funded state agency because it generates funds through the gasoline tax, it must go through the legislative appropriations process each year. For the past two years, some of MDOT’s funds were rerouted into the state’s general fund causing delays in highway construction.

“We fared very well with this year’s legislative special session,” said executive director Butch Brown. “We got our full appropriation based on what we generate and got the special bonds to assist with the building of gaming roads reinstated.”

The nine-day special session addressing budgetary matters ended May 30.

A state law provides that funds for construction of roads to better serve gaming areas be repaid by gaming funds. Last year, however, the costs of those projects came from MDOT funds.

Telling the story better

“This year we told our story better. All in all we had a good year,” Brown said. “We delayed 20 projects last year and the year before. Now we can readjust and get back on track.”

He thinks it will take 18 months to work back into the agency’s full highway construction program now that funding is restored. “We’re encouraged and know that no one in the Legislature is out to hurt us,” he said. “Our difficulty comes about because we have a 10-year obligation to commit funds and know that we will have them to complete a project.”

Highway construction is usually a 10-year process from acquisition of right of way to the completion of a project. MDOT must keep consistent levels of funding available during that process.

Brown describes the portion of Mississippi 304 that will become the state’s first segment of Interstate 69 as the current poster child project. He predicts it will open in 12 to 18 months.

“The economic development that goes with interstate construction is very important,” he said, “and it will help eliminate congestion in Northwest Mississippi.”

There are also other interstate construction projects planned for North Mississippi. U.S. 78 will become Interstate 22 from Memphis to the Alabama state line and a section of I-69 cutting across to 78 will be designated I-269.

The central piers are being completed of the new $250-million Mississippi River Bridge at Greenville. “We will then be starting on the approaches,” Brown said. “But it will be at least another couple of years before the bridge is complete, depending on Arkansas and how fast they move.”

In the Jackson area, MDOT is looking at a lot of loops and congestion mitigation, Brown said. There will be more interchange work around Madison along with additional frontage roads and lanes for Interstate 55 in the next eight to 10 months. Also, Interstate 20 from Jackson to Vicksburg, including the I-220 loop, is getting a refurbishing.
U. S. 61 is being four laned from Vicksburg through southwestern Mississippi to Baton Rouge, La.

Work on three projects is underway all around the Traditions planned community north of Biloxi in Harrison County. These service roads are being done in segments and will connect to Highways 67 and 605. These $50-million connectors will also serve the area as hurricane evacuation routes.

Another important South Mississippi project is the one that will provide a quick, direct route from Interstate 10 to the state port. The four-lane route, to be designated I-310, will begin near Wiggins, follow Canal Road in Gulfport and end at the port. Brown says it’s a $400- to $500-million project that will take five years to complete.

“We are actively pursuing this project and are now buying right of way,” he said. “We are also looking at an interstate connector in East Harrison County that will be designated I-210. We will hire a design team and start the right-of-way process in the next two years.”

Brown said that although MDOT requests these interstate designations within the state, the U.S. Congress must give them.

Federal challenges, too

In addition to state funding shortfalls these past two years, MDOT has also had to deal with federal budget woes.

“It’s been a challenge, and we hope to have a federal highway funding bill by the end of June,” he said.

The state agency now has 3,200 employees and a $850-million budget for fiscal 2006 that begins on July 1 of this year.

“We’re excited at MDOT. We have empowered our people and are getting a lot more productivity from them with ‘project delivery’,” the executive director said. “That just emphasizes that time is money and that we will never build a highway cheaper than we can build it today.”

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.


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