State transportation budget includes $4M for frontage road

Published 11:12 am Friday, April 4, 2014

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Extending South Frontage Road over rail tracks near the Outlets at Vicksburg shopping center was put on the table late in state lawmakers’ attempts to craft a transportation budget for fiscal 2015.

How it gets prioritized against other projects thrown into the mix at the 11th hour of negotiations remains to be seen.

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Work to build an overpass to connect the major thoroughfare to the mall and other retail and dining establishments just off East Clay Street has been short of funding since the Mississippi Department of Transportation purchased several tracts of land west of the tracks in 2011-12. In January, Central District Commissioner Dick Hall said the funding gap had grown to $17 million.

Among $40 million in projects the state Senate inserted into the revived House Bill 1475 late Wednesday was a $4 million appropriation for the South Frontage extension. State Sen. Briggs Hopson III, who sits on the Appropriations Committee, said it was time to get the rest of the work started, if nothing else.

“My hope is that MDOT will use some discretionary funds to complete the project,” Hopson said. “It’s not ideal, but better than not completing it.”

When reached Thursday, Hall said more comprehensive highway program besides last-minute earmarks from the Legislature, which can make it appear as though projects are being pushed to the front of the line.

“That’s the problem, it really doesn’t,” Hall said. “We’re to the point now where we need to build it, but you can’t build it for $4 million. It’s certainly a nice gesture by Sen. Hopson to put it in there. But, you have to have the whole package. It makes no sense to just build a little piece over here and a little piece over there.”

Hall, a former state representative, reiterated the need for a road improvement program along the lines of the broad program enacted over former Gov. Bill Allain’s veto in 1987. That bill provided money for four-laning roads and re-surfacing others, mostly from federal earmarks and the state’s gasoline tax.

“The Legislature will have to get off its fanny, admit we’ve got a problem and do it like we did it then.”

Though a separate project on paper from a more expensive project to widen six miles of Interstate 20 through Vicksburg and redesign exits along the way, work on the two would flow together, MDOT officials have said. Traffic on both frontage roads are to be turned in one direction once it’s complete, though most major work is years away. In 2012, the agency said the project to widen the highway would be done in eight separate contracts between 2014 and 2040. No construction has since begun.

House and Senate leaders had disagreed initially on the scope of the state’s transportation budget, with the larger chamber saying it wasn’t proper to throw items in the fiscal 2015 budget that weren’t on MDOT’s priority list.

The agency has said it needs about $400 million annually to prevent Mississippi’s roads from worsening from current conditions. Lawmakers rejected calls to raise taxes to finance road upkeep. That includes the gasoline tax, which been a flat 18 cents a gallon since 1987 and hasn’t been indexed for inflation, which Hall has said is a hindrance to kick-starting highway work statewide.