Highway coming, director tells Port Gibson|[05/16/08]

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 16, 2008

PORT GIBSON – Despite an outpouring of residents opposed to plans to four-lane north and south portions of U.S. 61, known to residents as Church Street, the state highway department will not falter, executive director Larry L. “Butch” Brown told a crowd of about 100 gathered at City Hall on Thursday night.

The Mississippi Department of Transportation will complete the plan in order to fulfill the agency’s 20-year state plan to connect the last leg of the highway, he said.

“There are two choke-points that are incomplete, and we intend to complete those tie-ins,” Brown said, referring to work that would carry out the agency’s legislative commitment to the 1987 Four-Lane Highway Program and the 2002 Phase IV Vision 21 Program, both adopted to ensure every Mississippian would be linked to a four-lane highway within 30 miles or 30 minutes.

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Completing the stretch of highway does not rule out the possibility of U.S. 61 eventually bypassing oak-lined Church Street, home to seven historic churches and a Jewish synagogue, Brown said.

Butch Brown”We have not closed the door to a bypass,” he said.

Widening the two portions, however, provides residents with an option to have the current street rehabilitated, Brown said. But, many residents voiced their desires for MDOT to “Stay off Church Street,” a response to fears that were stirred after plans were presented at a public hearing in March that showed the addition of a fifth lane and other improvements residents feel will threaten the 100-year-old trees and jeopardize the town’s culture and tourism.

“We’re not going to tear out Church Street to rehabilitate,” he said. “I’m not here to do anything to disrupt your lives, your history or your culture. But, I have to do what I’m mandated to do.”

Brown mentioned, if the community requested, MDOT could discontinue all maintenance it provides to the state highway, a move he said would “save me a lot of money.”

Brown was asked by Mayor Fred Reeves to address questions that residents have raised since the decision to upgrade the more than 5 miles of U.S. 61 that would extend the existing four-lane highway was announced. A committee formed to keep MDOT’s plans from moving forward has hired Keith Turner, an environmental attorney, who developed an online petition and has been collecting letters and legal information to halt any plans.

Most Port Gibson residents are in favor of a bypass that would go east of town, presented by MDOT officials as Alternate I. That route would, in addition to protecting the street, allow an area for commercial growth, members of the Highway 61 Committee and others have said. Brown said, in order to move forward with that alternative, an improved environmental study would have to be performed because the area is in a flood plain.

Even though he said MDOT “favors a bypass,” Brown said traffic counts along U.S. 61 don’t warrant one. Over the past two weeks, counts were performed south of the Natchez Trace and north of Mississippi 18 and showed 6,700 vehicles drove one way along the road and 6,400 vehicles drove the other way. Brown said those numbers compare to those collected in 2006, when MDOT recorded 7,100 southbound vehicles and 7,600 northbound vehicles.

“Traffic is not increasing. It’s decreasing,” he said. “That’s what brings a bypass – traffic generators.”

For years, residents have attended public meetings in which MDOT officials have presented at least eight possible routes. Until now, a consensus on which route the residents want had not been made. Some residents, still, are opposed to a bypass, but were fewer in number at Thursday’s meeting.

Responding to questions about why MDOT will not use federal funds to complete the project, a gesture some believe keeps the agency from having to adhere to federal guidelines, Brown said the agency can move more quickly by using state money. “I’m trying to do my best to assure you – we’re not going to do anything to hurt you. We’re trying to make you safer,” he said. “My commitment is to continue to work with the community on finding a bypass everybody can work with. Trust me – not everybody is going to agree with it. We will also complete our mission as set out.”

Brown said he would leave the two-lane bridge north of Church Street there as a sign of good faith that he will work toward creating a bypass.

“I personally feel the worst thing is to put another bridge on the north end of Church Street. That sort of seals the fate,” he said. “If there’s going to be a bypass someday, bridge construction will take place then.”

Jane Ellis, chairman of the 61 committee and a Church Street resident, said after the meeting that Brown’s comments did not comfort her. Her fight continues, she said.

“I knew Butch Brown wasn’t going to roll over and play dead. I liked hearing him say something about a bypass, but I don’t think we can stop working,” she said. “We’re still trying to see if anybody can help. We’re going to keep on trying.”

The group has met with representatives from the Mississippi Development Authority, a representative from Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant’s office and staff at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. She said they will continue to garner support for their cause.

Brown did not give a solid timeline for when work would begin. After the meeting, he did say MDOT officials will return in “a few months” to discuss options with the community.