Roads go nowhere, vows hit dead end

Connectors pushed to late in decade

Geoff Pender
Sun Herald
Sunday, April 29, 2001; Page A1

GULFPORT -- As the dust settles from the recently ended session of the Mississippi Legislature, it appears the Coast's demands for highway projects were again thwarted.

Badly needed north-south highways in Biloxi and Gulfport have been planned and promised for years.  But they remain unfunded and, in the best case, are years away from the start of construction.

Wayne Brown, Southern District commissioner for the Mississippi Department of Transportation, last week said that the start of work on a Gulfport connector is realistically at least five years away and work on a Biloxi connector is probably at least six to eight years away.  MDOT's previous estimates had been far more optimistic.

In the meantime, the Coast's traffic has continued to grow at about 6 percent a year, clogging main arteries.  But no source of funding for connector highways is in sight.

"The sad thing is that a lot of people down here really believe that the state highway department is about to build us some roads," said Harrison County Supervisor Larry Benefield, co-chair of the county Transportation Commission.  "We are not seeing state road projects done on the Coast.  We local officials, every one of us, should be screaming to the top of our lungs, but you don't see that either."

Several measures before the 2001 legislative session that could have funded or speeded Coast road construction failed.

This revived on the Coast criticism of MDOT, state politics and priorities.  Many Coast leaders and residents believe the Coast is being trampled by powerful coalitions of legislators and other public officials from northern parts of the state.

A major case in point: The Coast was virtually left out of the largest long-range road spending plan in state history, the $5 billion 1987 Four Lane Program.  The road program has funded primarily new roads in rural parts of the state, with far less traffic than the Coast.  When construction of the '87 program is complete in about a decade, Harrison County taxpayers will have spent more than $700 million in state and federal gasoline taxes that fund it.  In return, they will have gotten a six-mile strip of highway that doesn't go below Interstate 10.

Measures to rework the '87 program died in the Legislature this session.  They were part of an MDOT reform bill that many local leaders believed would make the Coast a higher priority for transportation.  Also, a bill to extend the $36 million-a-year 1994 Gaming Roads program beyond 2012 died.

"I think the north-south connectors for Gulfport and Biloxi died as a result of good-ole-boy politics in the Senate Transportation Committee," said Royce Hignight, a Biloxi resident who has served on citizens' transportation committees and been critical of MDOT.

Hignight believes the legislative approval this year of a bill to refurbish a railroad line from Gulfport to Hattiesburg was a "tradeoff" for needed road expansion on the Coast.

"We got absolutely nothing that would help build roads down here.  We're left out of it.  If we are going to get anything, people are going to have to start right away, not wait until the start of the next legislative session.  It appears to me that people down here are going to have to consider legal action to get their fair share of highway building funds."

MDOT has drafted plans to build freeway-style connector highways in Biloxi and Gulfport, which could cost upwards of $300 million.  Many Coast leaders and residents have called for MDOT to scale back the plans, design smaller, four-lane roads that could realistically be funded and built in the near future.

But Brown and other MDOT officials have defended their plans for six-lane, high-rise highways.  Brown said smaller roadways would likely not be approved by federal transportation authorities because they would not meet long-range traffic needs.  He has said smaller connectors would become "hamburger highways," croded with traffic coming in and out of fast-food restaurants and other businesses instead of moving traffic efficiently.

"We'll take hamburgers, as opposed to getting zero," Benefield said.  "If they know we can't afford these roads, why waste time in designing them?  We have to have something soon."

Brown said the state "will figure out some way to pay for" the Coast connector highways.

"The 1987 Four Lane Program did a wonderful job of putting a roadway backbone in Mississippi," Brown said.  "Now it's time to concentrate on where the traffic is, on the Coast and other urban areas with new growth.  And we've got to do it in a non-political way."

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Last updated 10/27/01