Port Gibson work stalled in time

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 19, 2009

A year after a plan to four-lane U.S. 61 through Port Gibson provoked a dispute between state agencies, the Mississippi Department of Transportation has yet to begin work on its proposal to alter the section of highway that passes through town as Church Street.

“We have gotten no contracts, and there has been no work to pursue any alternative,” said Kevin Magee, MDOT’s district engineer.  “At this point, I can’t tell you exactly what direction we will go in, or when we will go in that direction.”

The inaction has provided some hope to local residents who favor accomplishing the 61 expansion by building a bypass east of Port Gibson, according to a leader of the campaign to “save Church Street.”

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“To me, no news, at this point, is good news,” said Jane Ellis, chairman of the Port Gibson Heritage Trust’s Highway 61 Committee.  “When we first started fighting this about two years ago, we had been told that the work was going to start in a few months.”

Since then, the MDOT-backed plan for Church Street has taken criticism from Port Gibson residents, historic preservationists and Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall. The opponents say that converting Church into a wider, busier thoroughfare will jeopardize the old homes, trees and churches that line the route. 

Last July, the board of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History voted to support the resistance to the plan.

Port Gibson contains the last segment of U.S. 61 in Mississippi not widened into four lanes between I-20 in Vicksburg and the Louisiana state line.

While part of the route through town is already four lanes, other areas are not and would be widened under MDOT’s plan. Also, a busy stretch of the highway would be restriped into five lanes.

The alternative favored by the heritage trust committee calls for a bypass that would begin just north of town and pass on two industrial parks to the east before reconnecting with the four-lane highway that runs south to Natchez.

The disagreement over how to expand U.S. 61 through or around Port Gibson is holding up completion of a state highway-widening program that began in 1987. “If it was an easy issue to resolve, it would have been resolved a long time ago,” Magee said. 

The goal of the original initiative was to build 1,077 miles of four-lane highway, much of it along 61, to ensure that every Mississippian would live within 30 miles of a four-lane highway. An additional 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.