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Historic highway rebuilding, but what does future hold?

In Harrison County, U.S. 90 is more than a roadway to travel from point A to point B (photos right).

Meandering along 26 miles of sand beach, this historic highway is iconic and nostalgic to many. It is also a busy thoroughfare of commercial activity and a major daily transportation route to thousands of residents. The highway was a victim to Hurricane Katrina and is now in recovery mode while looking to its future best use.

In a matter of weeks the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) will begin taking bids to spend $80 million to $90 million to bring the roadway back to its pre-Katrina status. According to Harry Lee James, deputy executive director and chief engineer, no new lanes will be added.

That’s good news to Brian Sanderson, president of the Gulf Coast Business Council. “Between the Bay of St. Louis and Biloxi Bay, Highway 90 must return to a scenic beach boulevard, and the Business Council is wholly engaged in those efforts,” he said. “This stretch of sand beach is special. It is the Coast’s postcard and should be rebuilt with special thought and consideration.”

Immediately following the hurricane, James says MDOT’s goal was to make the highway useable for emergency and construction workers and the public. “Some parts look like normal but all are not up to pre-Katrina standards,” he said. “This project will make it look new and uniform.”

The project includes stabilizing the base; installing new curbs, gutters, drainage, and pipes where needed; erecting permanent signals and updated signage; re-paving; and some additional landscaping. It will be done in four increments using 100% federal funds. The landscaping is in addition to the $1 million tree-planting project currently underway. It is financed with 80% federal and 20% state funds.

“We made a commitment after Katrina to go along with the look and feel of the Coast by planting live oaks and some hardwoods,” James said. “It is a scenic highway and the majority has a scenic view. Our commitment is to bring it back to where it was.”

Harrison County Supervisor Connie Rockco also wants the highway to retain its scenic look and supports the tree-planting project. “The county is still strapped for money but we received a $50,000 grant through the Harrison County Beautification Commission that we’ve spent on hiring an arborist to put mulch around the trees.”

Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway says his city wants a scenic boulevard that is safe to motorists and pedestrians.

“We want a boulevard that moves traffic efficiently and is dotted with responsibly-built homes, historic sites, resorts, restaurants and other visitor amenities — all set against the backdrop of a beautiful beach and beautiful views,” he said. “Highway 90, or Beach Boulevard as it is known locally, is our front yard and we want it to be something we are proud of.”

Rockco says the county has hired local engineer Bill Knesal to replace the 26 miles of boardwalk with a concrete walkway, using FEMA funding.

Thinking of the mix of businesses along the highway, she said, “We want the look of a tier one destination. That means we can have some novelties and whimsical things plus some sophistication.”

To date, the only chain restaurants that have rebuilt along the beach are a couple of Waffle Houses and one Wendy’s. Rockco said some chain businesses are looking at property north of Interstate 10 because of the costs of insurance and rebuilding along the waterfront.

“We are re-thinking areas that could draw people to the beach since a lot of historic places and other attractions were lost, “she said. “We need to depict some of our history with murals, statues and benches much like Cincinnati has done along the river.”

Gulfport Mayor Brent Warr says his city’s hope for Highway 90 is reflected in a vision statement that describes Gulfport as ‘a picturesque beachfront city on the Gulf of Mexico with a diverse culture and safe family-oriented neighborhoods, supported by a progressive economy where everyone feels welcome and at home.’

“The Mississippi Gulf Coast will be beautiful again; what it looks like can be a tourist attraction,” he said. “I support efforts to create the most scenic drive possible from city to city.”

Warr would also like to see residential areas, community green space and recreational facilitates return to Highway 90 in addition to condominium and commercial developments.

“As insurance, labor and cost of building issues stabilize, the city will work to support revitalization,” he said. “We are in the process of rebuilding lost and antiquated infrastructure. We have adopted Smart Code (and recently were awarded a national award for our efforts) to address issues of land use, density, best use and highest return on investment.”

Biloxi began replacing all storm-destroyed street lights just weeks after the hurricane. “By this summer we hope to have all of U.S. 90 lit to safety standards from one end of Biloxi to the other, which will be unprecedented,” Holloway said.

He said the city is also working with property owners seeking to rebuild along the highway in respect to varying uses of their property and zoning decisions through processes set up with public input.

In the ‘making lemonade out of lemons’ category, Biloxi hired an artist to craft standing dead trees into marine life sculptures. This sculpture garden is a few blocks west of the Biloxi Lighthouse.

“We hope to do more of this type of thing as well as restore existing landmarks such as the lighthouse and the White House water fountain,” Holloway added.

In conjunction with the board of supervisors and the Gulf Coast Business Council, Rockco is planning a beach summit within the next few weeks. “We want to find out what everyone is doing — MDOT and all the cities; everyone,” she said. “We need to look at what we can do for the upcoming tourist season to make the beach and highway look good.”

Sanderson says the business council is looking at long range plans in addition to short-term ones. “Ultimately, an alternate east-west corridor will be constructed to accommodate the daily, local traffic which clogs Highway 90,” he said. “Harrison County and those beachfront cities should designate the beach drive as a special corridor, and the business council will work with them to provide those necessary tools.”

He said leaders are determined not to repeat the land use mistakes made after Hurricane Camille.

“One of the most deplorable developments over the past year is the return of bigger and brighter off-premise billboards,” he said. “They destroy the scenic beauty of our coastline and do not speak to the uniqueness of this place. Also, we are working with the governor’s office, the Department of Marine Resources and our federal partners to preserve and increase green space along Beach Boulevard.”

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.


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