Claiborne seeking road extension from Legislature|[6/27/05]

Published 12:00 am Monday, June 27, 2005

‘Port connector’ would serve Grand Gulf

A request for state help to pay for a highway extension near Grand Gulf Nuclear Plant may be brought to the fore this week when the Mississippi Legislature meets in special session.

Legislators for Claiborne County said they hope their request for $4 million for Mississippi 18 to meet Grand Gulf Road will be considered.

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The funds would be raised by borrowing and would be the required matching part of a project that is expected to cost about $22 million. The remainder is expected to be financed by the federal department of transportation.

The road would be a straighter, safer route to the area of the Claiborne County Port and the nuclear station, county port commission president and District 4 supervisor Martha Lott said. The proposed road would also be known as a “port connector.”

Claiborne officials have sought funding for the project for years, but they’re emphasizing it now because Grand Gulf has begun seeking regulatory approval to add a generating capacity at the site, county economic-development director James Johnston said.

The current Grand Gulf unit, in operation since 1985, is beside the Mississippi River floodplain northwest of central Port Gibson, about 4.5 miles west of U.S. 61 North at the closest point and about 1.1 miles east of the Mississippi River near the Claiborne County port.

Plans for the extension are about 90 percent complete and construction could begin as early as this year if funding is approved, county engineer Jeff Knight said.

Building of the road would require the demolition of two structures, Greater St. Mark Baptist Church, 1056 St. Mark Drive, about 600 feet west of U.S. 61 North, and a convenience store across U.S. 61 North from where it forms a “T” with Mississippi 18.

Claiborne County has bought the church, which will build anew.

Construction of the road would also require bridges to be built over Little Bayou Pierre and Big Bayou Pierre, Knight said.

The governing boards of Claiborne County and Port Gibson have endorsed plans for expansion at Grand Gulf, which could begin as early as 2010.

The number of construction workers required to help build a new Unit 2 at the site could be about 3,150, a draft environmental-impact statement prepared by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission says. Though most of the larger pieces of the plant would probably be brought to the site by barge, road traffic would likely be heavy at times during construction, the statement says.

Operation of a new unit could result in an increase in the permanent operating staff at the site of 1,160 employees and the addition of those jobs would affect the surrounding area as well as Claiborne County, the statement adds.

“It is expected that a majority of the future employees will reside in more populous areas located in neighboring counties (for example, Vicksburg, Warren County),” the statement says.

The current routes to the site from U.S. 61 are few and require using Grand Gulf Road, a winding county road that provides access to Grand Gulf Military Park and has been designated a scenic byway, or a route that extends from Anthony Street near central Port Gibson to Old Mill Road and crosses a bridge called Two-Mile that has washed out and been rebuilt twice, Knight said.

Separately, an upgrade is planned to one of the road sections that forms part of a route to the site and the port, Bald Hill Road from Grand Gulf Road to Headley Road, Knight said. Bald Hill connects with Old Mill Road across Big Bayou Pierre from Port Gibson. The project is on a list to be funded by the Mississippi Department of Transportation’s state-aid program, Knight said.

Manufacturing has taken place in buildings near the port but no factory operates there now, Lott said. She added that the county hopes to attract new industry to return sites at the port to operation. The port is a relatively small barge terminal used mainly as a loading point for the county’s main exports, agricultural and forest products, a draft NRC safety-evaluation report says.

Mississippi 18 is a two-lane, east-west road from Utica to U.S. 61 and its extension would also be built as a two-lane road, Knight said. Plans call for the county to acquire enough land, however, that the extension could eventually be widened into four lanes, Knight said. The MDOT’s long-range road plan calls for Mississippi 18 from the proposed road west to Utica to be eventually widened to four lanes, Knight added.

The special session that is set to begin Tuesday was called by Gov. Haley Barbour. It would be this year’s third special session. The regular session ended April 3.

The governor sets the agenda for special sessions and Barbour has said he will limit that of Tuesday’s session to consideration of a plan, called Momentum Mississippi, which would revise and expand the kinds of financial incentives offered by the state government to new and existing businesses. If the Legislature passes that plan, the agenda may be expanded to include borrowing for other projects, Barbour has said.

In a previous special session, negotiations on Momentum Mississippi broke down after members of the House of Representatives attached proposals to issue tens of millions in bonds for specific projects statewide. The $4 million in matching funds for the Mississippi 18 extension was not included among those additions but does have the support of Claiborne County’s representative in that chamber, Rep. Chuck Middleton, D-Port Gibson, he said.

For each $1 million in bonds issued today state taxpayers would have to repay about $1.3 million in principal and interest over the life of the bonds, a schedule used by the state treasurer’s office shows.

“This is a critical project,” Middleton said. “I think it will help to ensure whether Unit 2 is built and provide safer access to and from the plant.”

Middleton said he had filed a bill hat would have provided the matching funds but that that bill died in committee.

“I’m in support of the port connector road – anything for economic development,” Middleton said, adding that the project was among many proposed but not included in the bond bill that was approved by the House Ways and Means Committee in the previous special session. That session ended May 28 with the passage of a $4.6 billion state budget for the year that starts July 1.

Momentum Mississippi has passed the Senate. The senator who represents Claiborne County, Sen. Lynn Posey, D-Union Church, said he also supported trying to include the Mississippi 18 extension among any for which the Legislature may decide this year to issue bonds.

“Claiborne County officials have worked real hard on trying to get this project for many years,” Posey said.

The governments of the county and its seat, Port Gibson, are among those who have said they support the building of a new reactor on the site.

The state funding is to comprise 20 percent of the project’s cost excluding some preliminary costs such as design work, Johnston said. Plans are for it to be combined with about $8 million in federal funds that have already been transferred to the MDOT for the project and another about $10 million that staff of the state’s two U.S. Senators have said they will work to get included in a transportation bill being considered by Congress this year, Johnston said.

GGNS is operated by Entergy Nuclear, a subsidiary of which is in the second year of a scheduled three-year process seeking the first of two major NRC permissions it would need to begin building a second reactor at the site.