Highway preview draws 150 to see plansMDOT offers three proposals: 1-way frontage, 2-way, do nothing

Published 11:28 am Friday, August 24, 2012

Freddie Thompson, one of about 150 people who went to the Vicksburg Convention Center Thursday evening to be briefed and comment on three plans for changes on Interstate 20 through Vicksburg, knows she’s been down the same road before.

“They bought me out when Baxter Wilson went in and moved over here,” said Thompson, 67, pointing nervously at yellow lines on maps depicting the multimillion-dollar project’s spread through her house.

“Then, here came MP&L again and bought some land,” she said. “I just want to know when the Department of Transportation is going to come to my house and tell me to get out.”

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Thompson’s house is on Capri Drive, near the River Region Medical Center West campus on North Frontage Road — with access from Confederate Avenue — which is near enough to the highway to put it on the edge of rights of way lines that mark the Mississippi Department of Transportation’s plan to rebuild the left-handed U.S. 61 South exit from near Halls Ferry Road.

The preliminary assessment assumes the project to widen the highway will be broken into eight construction contracts let between 2014 and 2040.

But Central District Commissioner Dick Hall doubted that time frame will hold.

“With the way federal allocations are going, it won’t start in two years,” Hall said. “Six years, maybe.”

About $12.3 million has been spent so far on design and environmental phases on the project, now expected to cost between $221 million and $230 million.

MDOT will select one of three plans, two of which would widen lanes and improve exits.

The first plan leaves the interstate as is; another returns two-way traffic to the frontage roads after construction; the final keeps North Frontage Road westbound and South Frontage Road eastbound.

Additional federal money for the entire project depends on whether the Federal Highway Administration finds no significant environmental impact with a selected alternative. Public comments accepted by MDOT through Sept. 2 will be factored into that.

The heart of the project, which has little opposition, is to widen the interstate to six lanes between the Washington Street/Warrenton Road exit and the U.S. 61 North/Mississippi 27 exit and expand lanes at each exit.

MDOT expects most comments to focus on the frontage roads, both vital commercial corridors.

In the plan that returns the traffic flow to two ways, both frontage roads would move outward at Indiana Avenue, creating longer ramps to and from the interstate, and would prompt the state to buy out and eliminate Kangaroo gas stations on both sides of the interchange, a BancorpSouth branch and a KFC outlet.

Part of North Frontage would dead-end just east of Indiana Avenue because it would run into national park land, protected from development. It’s also the more expensive option, according to summaries distributed Thursday by MDOT.

“We’ve met with them before,” said Bobby Hannon, who owns KFC locations on Indiana Avenue and on Clay Street. Hannon didn’t attend Thursday’s presentation, but had spoken with MDOT multiple times about the highway work. “We thought they could find a way around it. I guess we’ll have to talk to them again.”

On an impact summary posted beside aerial photos of the plan, MDOT estimated 24 businesses would be approached for rights of way on the one-way frontage road plan. It would mean 14 businesses and seven homes would have to move.

On the two-way plan, the agency estimated it would need property from 32 businesses. Seventeen businesses and nine homes would have to be moved.

Chuck Tate, a volunteer firefighter in the Culkin district in Warren County, said the one-way frontage roads could cut the risk for accidents when vehicles turn left onto each one.

“I’m just saying, from an emergency vehicle standpoint, it would improve access to the interstate and be better.”

In both sets of plans to build, underpasses would connect north and south frontage roads just east of Halls Ferry Road and at Porters Chapel Road. Lanes would be expanded on overpasses at Indiana and at Clay Street. Both would extend South Frontage Road over rail tracks near the Outlets at Vicksburg and create more access lanes from Mississippi 27 and U.S. 80.

More signal lights would be built at Indiana Avenue in each alternative.

A two-way frontage road system that requires eliminating businesses is the toughest sell, said Central District Engineer Kevin Magee.

“It’s not the most desirable deal, but that’s what it is,” Magee said.

I-20 through Vicksburg was completed in 1973 after a decade of several small-phase construction projects designed for 50 mph, according to agency literature. A 60 mph limit is posted on the highway through Vicksburg. Daily traffic averaged 47,000 in 2011 at its busiest point, between Indiana Avenue and Clay Street.

“This section of I-20 has exceeded its design life,” a study summary noted. “Major reconstruction is needed to meet current design standards and to accommodate the existing and the anticipated future traffic demand.”

The plan to extend South Frontage, via a raised road over rail tracks, to the Outlets at Vicksburg is a separate project from the proposed I-20 project. So, highway officials have said, that project will stay on the construction schedule to begin possibly in 2013.