Development booming traffic and congestion

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 30, 2002

Vehicles pass on U.S. 61 North just past its intersection with Interstate 20, one of several high-volume traffic spots along the north-south roadway.(The Vicksburg Post/JON GIFFiN)

[05/30/02]Short- and long-term plans are being made for safer travel along Vicksburg’s main north-south highway, but no definite changes are planned for the fast-developing portion of U.S. 61 North.

There are multiple problem areas where numerous wrecks have occurred, including wrecks with fatalities.

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From I-20, for example, there are left exits to head south, toward Wal-Mart, or north, toward River Region Medical Center. Couple that with on-ramps from Halls Ferry and from Clay feeding vehicles that try to merge across interstate traffic quickly to reach the exits and wrecks and close calls become plentiful.

Mississippi Department of Transportation Assistant District Engineer Carl Middleton agrees the designs are poor.

“That’s one of the earlier segments of interstate that was built in Mississippi,” Middleton said. “A lot of design criteria have changed since it was constructed.”

A very long-range plan exists to replace the left exits with right exits and flyover ramps, Middleton said. Current interstate standards call for a more-leveled surface, longer and less steeply banked entrance and exit ramps and different-type guardrails than are in place in some parts of that stretch of road, he added.

Projections are for increasing traffic along the merged stretch of I-20. From 35,000 to 41,000 vehicles travel that stretch a day in both directions, traffic counts show.

Planning for the project, estimated to cost roughly $140 million, began in about 1993, and no target date for its completion has been set, Middleton said.

“A lot just depends on when funds become available to do it,” he said. About 90 percent of interstate work is funded from federal sources.

While there are at least some plans for U.S. 61’s interchanges with I-20, there are no changes planned for the divided stretch of 61 from I-20 to the River Region complex.

People who work and shop in a few of the 20 or so businesses with driveways along the roadway said congestion and wrecks are definitely on the rise.

Traffic counts show about 24,000 vehicles a day travel that 1.6-mile stretch of road. The speed limit, 45 miles per hour for much of it, increases to 55 miles per hour for a short stretch that passes by the popular convenience store Super Jr.

“The speed limit’s the problem,” store co-owner Lee Tidwell said of the segment, where turnarounds are often made and where two wrecks had been reported in about a 10-day period.

Jeanie Hinson is a five-year employee of the store. “Traffic started picking up when they started building the hospital and of course since it’s opened there’s much more,” she said. “When I leave at 10 p.m., it’s still busy.”

Ron Farmer, an employee of Firearms Outfitters Inc., said he thought the addition of a third, turn, lane would help, and agreed that 45 mph was a reasonable speed limit. “They probably won’t go any slower,” he said.

A few people said the two traffic signals in place on that stretch of highway, one at the hospital intersection, at Sherman Avenue, and the other at Bowie Road, were fast becoming too few.

One customer of the Hadad’s Outdoor World complex, Mike Kavanaugh, summed up his view of the situation. “Other than signals, I don’t see a whole lot that they can do,” he said.

Work, however, is planned at an intersection at U.S. 61 South’s junction with Warrenton Road in the form of improved signs and signals.

Most of the about 12,000 vehicles that pass that point each day are going too fast there, and some are failing to fully obey traffic signs, MDOT area engineer Greg Stevens said. The speed limit is 45 mph, but studies show vehicles going by there at an average speed of about 55, Stevens said. The intersection averaged a wreck every nine days from Feb. 25 to May 8, Vicksburg Police Department records show.

Stevens said the sight distance between southbound cars topping the hill and the intersection is an acceptable 900 feet. Cars traveling at 55 mph, or about 80 feet per second have a little more than 11 seconds to cross the median, Vicksburg Police Lt. David Beard said. That’s enough time, he added, but any significant delay before beginning to cross makes that time dangerously short.

To encourage drivers to stop, MDOT plans to put a series of “rumble strips” on the median, add another “stop ahead” sign, freshen and widen the “stop bar” on the pavement there and add solar-powered flashing lights to the warning signs for southbound traffic that are about 750 to 1,000 feet north of the intersection, Stevens said.

“We’ll do another (speed) study every couple of weeks,” Stevens said, “and we’ll keep seeing if there’s anything else we can do.”