Save Church Street, state archives department says|[08/05/2008]

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 5, 2008

From staff and AP reports

The Mississippi Department of Archives and History has thrown its support behind the campaign to save Church Street.

The department has passed a resolution and asked state transportation officials to drop plans to modify the route through town and retain it as the main path of U.S. 61.

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“We were so thrilled to get the resolution,” said Jane Ellis, a Church Street resident and chairman of the Highway 61 Committee, an entity of the Port Gibson Heritage Trust devoted to saving the street. “We really feel like the Department of Archives and History is a powerful entity that should be listened to.”

In a meeting last month, the MDAH’s board of trustees said in a resolution that Church Street “is a place of special historical interest and of such importance to the people of Mississippi that its integrity should not be jeopardized or impaired.”

Opponents to the project say the vibrations from increased traffic will damage the historic trees, homes and churches that line the street.

The Mississippi Department of Transportation, through Executive Director Larry L. “Butch” Brown has said it intends to carry out the plan as part of a legislative directive to improve the traffic flow on the highway from the Louisiana to the Tennessee line. But rather than widening the street, MDOT will convert the street-side parking along Church Street to accommodate the extra lanes. The vehicle count is not expected to change.

“Our proposal is to pretty much leave (the historic) section alone and just overlay it with one layer of asphalt,” MDOT District Engineer Kevin Magee said. “That would not threaten any trees or any of the churches. The traffic would remain exactly where the traffic is now.”

Southern District Transportation Commissioner Wayne Brown said he voted for the Church Street proposal because he thought it had local support from city and Claiborne County officials.

“When I became a commissioner in 1999, generally speaking, the county folks wanted the highway to go around the city and the city folks wanted it to go through, because going through town means that more people are coming through town spending more money,” Brown said.

Northern District Commissioner Bill Minor also voted for the project.

New local officials have been elected since and oppose the project, says Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall, who voted against the measure.

Hall said the problem is that no one can agree on any one alternate route east or west of the town of 1,800 residents.

“We have got to continue to work until we can get the majority of people to agree on something other than Church Street,” Hall said.

Brown said he would consider a bypass but something has to be done for the present.

“What we are going to do is overlay the pavement outside the historical district, add some turning lanes and add some traffic signals to streamline traffic,” he said.

Port Gibson has been adamantly fighting the proposed MDOT plan from the beginning in a free-for-all that has grown to include residents throughout the South, elected officials and even it’s own song.

In May, Melvin McFatter, a Port Gibson attorney and musician, unveiled his song, “The Second Battle of Port Gibson,” disputing the stated intentions of MDOT.

“I went down to the new highway to watch pedestrians try and cross,” McFatter’s lyrics say. “Crucifixes lined the curb, for those who had tried and lost. Some were taking their chances, others were taking bets. They’ll celebrate if someone gets across, although no one’s made it yet.”

Creating a better route through or around Port Gibson has been in discussions for about 20 years. 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.

U.S. 61 extends from downtown New Orleans to the Chicago region and was once the nation’s central north-south artery of commerce and pleasure travel. Interstate 55 now follows much of the highway’s former path.