No excuse for lack of KCS tunnel funding

Published 12:00 am Sunday, October 25, 2009

Talk about “shovel-ready!”

A tunnel to replace the Washington Street rail overpass at Clark Street in Vicksburg is not only “shovel-ready” in terms of engineering and design, bids have been taken and a contractor is ready to go.

All that continues to be missing is $3.8 million to fill the funding gap between money available and the $8.6 million total the project will actually cost.

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When Congress passed its largest-ever spending bill eight months ago, the pledge was that much of the $787 billion total would go “immediately” to put people back to work. The rush was described as finding public works projects “shovel-ready.”

Yet Mayor Paul Winfield has been frustrated. Week after week, his pleas to Democratic and Republican leaders such as Rep. Bennie Thompson and Sen. Thad Cochran have yet to translate into an authorization.

It must be awfully disconcerting for the mayor to read how billions of dollars are being earmarked for longer-term projects — some of which will not get under way for years — while Vicksburg’s pressing need for work that will lead to reopening its major north-south thoroughfare is passed over or lost in a pile of paperwork. The federal bureaucracy is certainly enhancing its reputation for inefficiency.

Former Mayor Laurence Leyens was merely the most recent leader to deal with the troublesome geology along the Mississippi River bluff. He put together the deal under which Kansas City Southern would take the lead in getting the tunnel built and share administrative responsibilities. Three years ago — three years ago — Vicksburg officials got the authority to borrow $5 million for the replacement, $4 million of which was to be repaid through annual checks from federal highway sources over four years. In the interim, the city was forced to spend tens of thousands of dollars on an emergency contract to shore up the area pending the start of the larger project. That’s tax money down the drain that wouldn’t have been spent had the tunnel work started on a timely basis.

With Thompson and Cochran in leadership positions in their respective camps in America’s capital, it shouldn’t be too much of a challenge for them to get a mere $3.8 million to keep more money from being wasted, to get people working and to restore an artery of local commerce. It’s a mystery why neither has been able to do so, but it’s also inexcusable given what the people were told about the purpose of the stimulus legislation and how Congress intended to allocate the public works portions.