Panola highways low priority for rest of Mississippi 9/13/2013

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 13, 2013

Panola highways low priority for rest of Mississippi

“The 16 miles of Interstate No. 55 which will be opened to traffic in Batesville this Friday, is built to meet the highway traffic needs that are expected to exist in 1975.”

— Northern District Highway Commissioner Roy C. Adams in remarks at the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the I-55 Batesville exit, Dec., 1963.

Few would now remember or care whether the interstate highway was indeed adequate to meet the traffic needs of 1975, but it was apparent long before work finally began late in 2012 to redesign the Batesville cloverleaf intersection that it was not built to handle the volume, speed and weight of traffic in the late 20th Century.

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A review of where the money for highway construction and renovation has been spent during the last two decades is helpful. During the 1990s, as casinos sprang up in Tunica, the state launched an aggressive program to widen and improve Highway 61 and other casino access routes to handle the sudden traffic increase then navigating narrow and unsafe two-lane highways. That highway money went to north Mississippi alright, but it didn’t find its way to Panola County. This area was asked to wait until those projects had been completed and then more highway money could flow to highways in Panola County.

But as those projects to provide better highway access to Tunica were being completed, along came Hurricane Katrina in 2005, damaging highways and bridges across the state’s southernmost counties. Repairing the storm-ravaged infrastructure had to be a priority for available transportation dollars. Wait, we were asked again, while the priority emergency repairs and replacements forced by the damage from the huge storm could be completed.

Then in 2008, the economy soured, cutting tax dollars, scaling back new projects and postponing repairs. Much of the available money has gone to the Tupelo area to create highway infrastructure for the Toyota factory at Blue Springs or to the Jackson area for highways to handle the growing volume of traffic produced by the Canton Nissan plant.

The soured economy, however, seemed to have little impact on traffic volume pounding the highways everywhere.

For the last couple of years, Central District Transportation Commission Dick Hall has been making a strong case to raise gasoline taxes to help fund repairs and replacement for decaying roadways and bridges throughout Mississippi. Mississippi Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Willie Simmons (D-Cleveland) has proposed a $700 million tax package for improved roads and bridges.

We would like to see Northern District Transportation Commissioner Mike Tagert join his fellow Republican transportation commissioner in calling for raising gasoline and diesel taxes to keep our highways and bridges from deteriorating further.

We would also like for the state legislators representing Panola County — Senator Steve Hale and Representatives Clara Burnett, Lataisha Jackson and Nolan Mettetal — to join Commissioner Hall and Senator Simmons to support legislation to raise funds to preserve and improve our highways. More specifically, we would like to see our district transportation commissioner and our legislators aggressively and with all deliberate speed (pun intended) pursue funding for improvements to the vital, congested east/west corridor that is Highway 6/278  from Interstate 55 west.

The vast interstate highway system that connected this country in the 1960s, contributing immeasurably to this nation’s prosperity in the late 20th Century, came about because during the 1950s, when Republicans and Democrats in Congress and the White House put aside party differences and worked together to achieve the goal for the country’s common good.

In the 1987 A.H.E.A.D (Advocating Highways for Economic Advancement and Development) program that raised $1.2 billion over 15 years to pay for four-laning 1,197 miles of Mississippi highways, business leaders and state legislators put aside sectional and philosophical differences to make that program a reality.

Panola County would now be best served if its economic and political leadership focused on two transportation priorities. First, join with other state leaders to get more funding for highways and bridges. Second, make sure a portion of that funding is spent to relieve congestion and improve safety on Highway 6/278.