‘Obvious’ problem on 61 South expected to be corrected

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 7, 2009

Ruts pressed into the riding surface of U.S. 61 South have long been a danger to life and property, including deaths of two Warren County officials, but improvements are expected to come this month.

“I think it’s obvious to everyone it needs to be repaired,” Warren County Sheriff Martin Pace said, weeks after Deputy Tom Wilson died May 17 in a wreck attributed to one of the highway’s numerous water-retaining low spots.

“I’m not a construction expert, nor am I a hydraulics engineer,” Pace said. “But, there is obviously a problem.”

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The details are similar to the 2006 wreck involving then-Warren County Coroner John Thomason. In both cases, a vehicle hydroplaned in wet road conditions.

The National Weather Service reported up to 4 inches of rain in Vicksburg on July 22, 2006, when Thomason’s SUV flipped in the 5000 block and hit a gas line while he was on his way to a fatal wreck.

The weather service recorded a quarter-inch of rain for May 16, the day before Wilson’s accident shortly after 1 the next morning. 

“The road has ruts. It’s just tilted and it just seems to hold water,” Vicksburg Police Chief Tommy Moffett said, adding the road’s design in certain spots keeps the traffic  division busy.

“At Warrenton Road, your vehicle is cocked to the north when you make the   turn (onto 61),” Moffett said.

Statistics from E-911 show rainfall may be only a slight factor in all accidents reported on 61, yet the hotspots correlate to the roughest driving traction.

Of 246 wrecks on 61 since Jan. 1, 2008, 48 were in the 4000 block where Wilson’s cruiser hit standing water and flipped. The total is the most for any single block on the highway, according to E-911.

Portions of the road north of Interstate 20 had fewer wrecks, mile-for-mile, but was no less dangerous. Of 206 wrecks on U.S. 61 North in the past 18 months, 63 occurred in the mile between the interstate and Beechwood Road.

Motorists might see improvements begin this month to the south side of the fabled north-south connector, if state transportation engineering plans hold.

Plans to resurface the southern portion were programmed into the Mississippi Department of Transportation’s “three-year” plan last year and the work is slated to begin in earnest during fiscal 2009-10, said Central District Engineer Kevin Magee.

Inspectors are expected to begin boring holes along portions of the road to inspect the thickness and strength of the existing surface. Brief lane closures are expected throughout the preliminary process, Magee said.

“It will definitely be a new riding surface,” Magee said. “We’re not sure which funding approach it will be. It depends on the scope of the work.”

The likeliest, Magee said, will involve resurfacing and repairing about nine miles of rutted, traffic-beaten roadway. Sections between Pemberton Square Boulevard and the Signal Hill area will be repaved, as well as three miles in each direction from that point south to Redbone Road.

“Depending on funding, we may do two projects,” Magee said. “Either way, we’re planning on addressing that section of roadway in FY 2010.”

A half-mile of the southbound lane at Signal Hill was reopened a year ago this month after $6.2 million in slope stabilization and road replacement work detoured motorists for more than three years.

Magee said the finished product will resemble about nine miles in each direction on U.S. 61 North, resurfaced and restriped in 2008 with $5.5 million in federal money. Highway projects in the state marked for funding under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 have been bid out, Magee said, but Federal Highway Administration dollars are expected to fund the bulk of planned work on 61.

Four-laned for much of its route through Mississippi, U.S. 61 does not appear on a $235 million list of projects to be funded with stimulus dollars. Sections of eight of the 14 U.S. routes in the state are on the list, with resurfacing projects involving each set to receive more than $73.3 million in stimulus funding.

Funding for highway projects typically come from gasoline taxes.

Fewer travelers nationwide and higher prices for petroleum byproducts like asphalt have made road maintenance more challenging, Central District Commissioner Dick Hall said.

“I wish 61 South was the only problem we had,” Hall said. “We have sites like that all over the state.”

Hall, in his third term as commissioner, and Magee, entering his third full year as the district’s lead engineer, declined to attach any urgency to the pending work. Highly technical engineering will determine the ratings the road receives heading into next year’s round of construction projects.

“The health of the asphalt underneath will determine what we will mill out and replace,” Magee said. “It’s stuff we do every day.”

One local highway improvement on MDOT’s 2009 project calendar has progressed, a resurfacing job on U.S. 80 from Mississippi 27 to Bovina.


Contact Danny Barrett Jr. at dbarrett@vicksburgpost.com