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For the Coast, road to the future is now

A reporter asked me the other day if I thought the issue over a new bridge between Biloxi and Ocean Springs would be resolved anytime soon.

I had to shake my head and chuckle.

The fact is, I thought the issue was resolved months ago when the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) decided to add bike and pedestrian lanes, landscaping, structural illumination and alter the color of the concrete.

I thought it had been resolved weeks ago when MDOT went out for bids, after leaders — elected leaders, no less — in Jackson County, Ocean Springs and Biloxi voiced support on the record.

And I thought it had been resolved when I heard President Bush, speaking at St. Stanislaus in Bay St. Louis, say that federal money had been approved and work would begin soon.

This continuing saga over this much-needed and overdue bridge is indicative of the crossroads where we find ourselves in the recovery process, but we must be careful not to overreach and painfully delay it.

To do so literally throttles our drive; prolongs our despair, our diminished quality of life; and, as a result, fails to take advantage of the post-storm momentum created by the vestiges of promise we’re seeing, be it in a fully-opened Highway 90; three casino resorts back in operation; and Popp’s Ferry bridge re-opening.

Make no mistake, we face a number of huge challenges in the weeks, months and years ahead. But, as we said in the premiere of the “Katrina & Biloxi” documentary the other night, we’re up to the challenge. We have been for years.
Memories are short. Much of the discussion going on these days concerns issues that pre-date Katrina. The issues are the same, only the landscape has changed.

We’ve overseen tremendous growth in the past 15 years, and we did it while preserving our small town charm, our history, our culture, and, frankly, our overall quality of life.

As prosperous as those times were, we stand poised for even greater promise, and in the past five months, we’ve demonstrated our resilience and our character.

That’s why the continuing bridge brouhaha is so frustrating. Is it close to being resolved? Something should be under construction. It’s a quality of life issue.

That’s the real issue we face: balancing quality of life with economic development.

The president said it himself back on January 12 at Stanislaus: a bridge is not only about creating a highway, “but it’s going to make the quality of life come back to what it was. You’re dependent upon good highways and good bridges in this part of the world. The government recognized that and put the money out there available for reimbursing the states when they get these highway projects moving.”

We’re delaying work on a vital link in our recovery because of something that could happen years from now — the building of vessels on the seaway that would require unfettered access to the open gulf.

There’s been a good bit of local and statewide media coverage about the Governor’s Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal, referred as the “blueprint for the future” in some circles.

Local communities would indeed be well-served to review the concepts and hundreds of suggestions in this document. At the same time, there’s a quiet majority worrying about how this report will impact them and their property.

If Gov. Haley Barbour, who has done a remarkable job of leading and representing our state through this crisis, is correct that local residents are going to be the ultimate decision makers on how our community will look in the future, then portraying the commission’s final report as the ultimate blueprint for our future is not quite accurate. This will lead some to the mistaken belief that failure to implement aspects of the report would be viewed as a failure. That, I fear, is a road we may already be headed down. It’s a road where the conceptual world is meeting the real world.

The first indication of that was this discussion over the U.S. 90 bridge. The commission and indeed, the governor himself, offered a number of excellent observations on transportation issues here on the Coast.

It’s been rightly observed that the CSX railway should be re-located for a new east-west corridor. Such a move would open the door to another of the commission’s suggestions — that U.S. 90 should be more a scenic boulevard. Fact is, U.S. 90 is a scenic highway but one we’ve been forced to use as a major thoroughfare since we’ve had no movement in the past several years on creating an east-west corridor throughout Harrison County.

The highway — for the most part — should remain four-lane from the Biloxi Lighthouse to Debuys Road, with more lanes only in high traffic areas, as we have at Casino Row or over near Fort Bayou in Ocean Springs, the two areas that would be connected by the new U.S. 90 bridge.

The fact is — in a best-case, real-world scenario — relocating the railway and constructing a new east-west corridor is a 10- to 15-year endeavor. If there’s any secret deal in the works, if someone’s found massive funding, now’s the time to say. The people of Biloxi need — and deserve — to know.

Meantime, can we wait 10 years to move the railway and construct a new east-west corridor? Can we even wait five years to build a new bridge, which would limit us in the meantime to the I-110 highrise, which itself suffered storm damage and was damaged after being rammed by a barge years ago. And, finally, should we limit ourselves to a four-lane bridge, particularly in light of the tremendous growth and increasing volume of traffic we’ll see in the next three to five years?

It would benefit all to view this rebuilding process with an open mind, and, just as importantly to remember a number of key considerations as we go about rebuilding.

We can revive the renaissance, given the tools.

Contact Mayor A.J. Holloway via e-mail at mayor@biloxi.ms.us, by mail at P.O. Box 429, Biloxi, MS 39533, by phone at 228-435-6254 or fax at 228-435-6129. You can follow Biloxi’s storm recovery online at biloxi.ms.us.


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