Fight 61 plan, transportation boss tells residents|[03/26/08]

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 26, 2008

PORT GIBSON — A room full of residents applauded Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall Tuesday when he voiced passionate opposition to a Mississippi Department of Transportation proposal to keep and expand the footprint of U.S. 61 through the town along what locals know as Church Street.

“I am absolutely, unalterably against this project,” Hall said to people gathered on the top floor of the town’s City Hall to see drawings, ask questions and, more often than not, protest the plan the state now intends to pursue. “This, to me, is not an option. I’m put in a real unusual situation. I’ve never been to a meeting where I had to oppose what the staff is presenting. You need to oppose this in every legal way you can.”

The route of a bypass around Port Gibson or a final decision to keep its path through the center of town will be made by the commissioners elected from north, central and south districts. Hall, a Vicksburg native, represents Port Gibson on the three-member panel, but is often at odds with the other two commissioners and MDOT Executive Director Butch Brown.

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Suanne Drake, who lives at 1006 Church St., walked around with an audio recording of the traffic noises she hears at her home daily. As she passed the MDOT officials who were dotted around the room, she told her story, which was clear from a sign she had draped around her neck.

“We hear noise pollution on our street 24/7,” it read.

Blown-up drawings with colored lines showed which properties would be affected and where a fifth lane would be added for turning off of the four lanes that now bisect the town. The plan is for the state to upgrade 5.5 miles of the street from the existing four-lane section south of Port Gibson to the existing four-lane section north of town. The work will include providing additional lanes north and south of the town’s historic district, which is lined with century-old oaks, historic homes and churches that date to before the Civil War.Port Gibson native Deborah Purviance, who operates Oak Square Bed and Breakfast on Church Street and was one of hundreds who attended the meeting, walked around pleading with MDOT officials to reconsider using the street she said brings visitors from all over the world. She, like others, many of whom have joined the Highway 61 committee under the auspices of Port Gibson Heritage Trust, had a list of reasons for MDOT to reject the plan.

The bike-friendly nature of the street will fade, parking for the historic churches will vanish and garbage collection and tree trimming will create dangers, she contended. Others cited pollution, vibration and dangers that will be felt by increased traffic.

The Highway 61 committee, formed last March, has attended meetings, sent letters and hired an environmental lawyer, all to protest the plan. Before Tuesday’s meeting, signs that said “Save Church Street” lined the street and crime scene tape was tied around many of the oaks. Jane Ellis, the committee’s chairman, greeted people as they walked in to City Hall and had them sign a petition while others offered their feelings to officials.

“People live here, breathe here and pay taxes here,” resident Claire May told Claiborne Barnwell, an environmental division engineer for MDOT, “People from all over come to Church Street. Their whole purpose is to see the beauty of our town.”

While residents opposing the plan seemed greater in number as they approached MDOT employees with their issues, a few people in favor of the Church Street route were also there. Jo Smith arrived with written notes.

“Continuing the route of Highway 61 through the town of Port Gibson would be in the best interest of the people and the safest,” her memo read.

Creating a better route through or around Port Gibson has been in discussions for about 20 years and Barnwell has spent about 11 years studying possible routes. The section is the last set for completion on the statewide AHEAD project, begun in 1987 with the purpose of four-laning all major highways in Mississippi. A fourth phase was added to the plan in 2002 as the Vision 21 program, which included four-laning 61 North from Redwood to Vicksburg and from Vicksburg south through Port Gibson, Natchez and farther south. Before that, in 1999, MDOT officials presented Alternate H, a route that bypassed the town, but didn’t allow property to be built because of the proximity to the Natchez Trace Parkway. The route, however, would avoid minority neighborhoods and jumped over the federal parkway.

U.S. 61 extends from downtown New Orleans to downtown Chicago and was once the nation’s central north-south artery of commerce and pleasure travel. Vicksburg, Natchez, Memphis, Fayette and many other cities had bypasses constructed long ago.

“Before we went to the public meeting, we were pleased with our effort,” Barnwell said. “There was hardly anybody there that approved it.”

A meeting a year ago between MDOT officials and then-Mayor Amelda Arnold, aldermen and Claiborne County Board of Supervisors resulted in what the state agency believed was a resolution. “They came to MDOT and said they wanted it to come through town,” Barnwell said.

Officials have said high costs, issues with flooding and historic elements in and around the town have made it nearly impossible to create a bypass. Over the years, about 11 options have been studied and presented. The option residents at the meeting were most in favor of was Alternate I, a bypass that would extend to the east, but also be close enough to the town to leave room for industry,

“There are a number of alternatives we have brought to Port Gibson and Claiborne County over the years. It’s a real tough place to try to bypass because of the battlefields, historic churches, the Natchez Trace — it’s very, very complicated,” said MDOT district engineer Kevin Magee.

Hall, who said he wasn’t invited to the meeting a year ago, has maintained his stance as “adamantly opposed” to the project. Port Gibson Mayor Fred Reeves, who unseated Arnold in November, said he agrees with Hall and would like to see U.S. 61 bypass the historic area.

“Yes, it’s difficult to find other options, but it doesn’t mean it’s impossible,” Hall said. “Their plan is also to not use federal money, which means they don’t have to have approval from the federal government. They planned that so they can cram it down your throat.”

Magee and other employees said despite the opposition the plan is to pursue taking the highway through the town. No other options were presented at the meeting. But Magee also said it will be years before the first sign of work is seen on the highway.

“There are a few things that have to be done — we’re talking years,” he said. “We have to have the project designed, right-of-way bought — it’s a process.”

Even though MDOT was taking comments from residents, both opposed and in favor, the plan to go down Church Street seemed decided.

“We’re not coming to offer an alternative. It’s been an exhausting effort,” Barnwell said. “Right now, they’re dead-set. This is it. We don’t feel like we have another choice.”