By Joe Rutherford
TUPELO – Dozens of public officials, VIP guests and about 200 other people Tuesday morning applauded the official ribbon cutting of the final new Highway 6/U.S. 278 segment, but the road won’t open until Monday.
Frequent rainfall in recent weeks has put the final work on the paving project behind schedule, but Mississippi Department of Transportation District 1 Engineer Mark Holley said MDOT is “shooting for Monday” to open the 10-mile sector from U.S. 45 to Highway 342 in Pontotoc County.
The rest of the four-lane artery has been open for several years from Pontotoc to Oxford and on to Batesville.
Doyce Hancock Deas of Tupelo, whose family owns land surrounding part of the new highway’s route, said, “I never thought I would live to see this happen.”
Northern District Transportation Commissioner Mike Tagert, the keynote speaker, said the ribbon cutting under a bridge at the Graham Road interchange south of Tupelo High School was a “day for celebrating” progress, vision, safety and potential economic development.
“No one entity built this asset alone,” Tagert said.
Tagert said the new route will be better able to handle “heavy commerce” in the transport truck traffic transiting from I-55 to U.S. 45.
Other speakers, including state Sen. Nancy Collins, R-Tupelo, and state Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, both praised the vision and planning in previous decades leading to the new highway’s construction.
Collins, whose father, the late Roy C. Adams, was Northern District highway commissioner from 1948 to 1968, said the new four-lane represents progress and forward movement.
“There is no horizon beyond our reach,” Collins said.
Holland, a senior member of the Legislature, said credit should be shared with the late U.S. Rep. Jamie Whitten, who proposed Appalachian Regional Commission funding for a pilot project that became the new Highway 6.
Mississippi ARC Director Mike Armour said the commission, a state-federal partnership in 13 states, has invested $225 million in Mississippi highways, including Highway 6, through the Appalachian Developmental Highway Program, which passes money through MDOT.
Holland, Collins, Rep. Mac Huddleston, R-Pontotoc, and others credited momentum created by the 1987 Highway Program, Mississippi’s first statewide, funded arterial highway system.
Holland said, “If I live to begin the 2015 session I am going to introduce legislation to adequately maintain this and other highways statewide.”
Holland’s remark brought applause from the crowd, including Tagert and other MDOT officials on the dais.
TUPELO – Mississippi Department of Transportation officials plan to cut a ribbon at 10 a.m. today marking “completion” of the new Mississippi Highway 6/U.S. 278.
But the new, final link in the Tupelo to Batesville route won’t open to traffic for a few more days because of weather delays.
The highway from east of Pontotoc to Batesville has been open for several years.
MDOT has scheduled the ribbon cutting event on the roadway at the Graham Road/New Highway 6 Interchange, with an alternate rain-site in Tupelo City Hall’s council chambers, if needed.
“The completion of this section of Highway 6 is a major milestone,” Northern District Transportation Commissioner Mike Tagert said in a news release. “This connection will not only increase safety by allowing 18-wheelers to travel on four-lanes from Highway 45 to I-55, but it will also help promote economic growth and development by allowing the efficient movement of goods through the region.”
MDOT spokesman Jerry Long in the Tupelo office said officials hope to be able to announce a highway opening date at the ribbon-cutting event.
MDOT’S press release said completion “will provide safe and efficient access to regional employment, shopping and educational and medical facilities, and provide an opportunity for future growth in the industrial area of the Pontotoc-Union-Lee (PUL) Alliance. It will assist with the movement of goods through the region by serving as a West-East connector between I-55 in Panola County and Highway 45 in Lee County.”
The $68 million project from Highway 342 in Pontotoc County to U.S. 45 has been funded by state and federal governments and the Appalachian Developmental Highway System, under the umbrella of the 13-state Appalachian Regional Commission.
The U.S. House Ways and Means Committee on Thursday approved a $10.5 billion package to rescue the Highway Trust Fund before it runs out of money in a few weeks, a proposed legislative “Band-Aid-type” remedy predicted earlier Thursday by Mississippi Northern District Transportation Commissioner Mike Tagert.
Tagert, responding to Daily Journal questions about the near-emergency of the dwindling trust fund, said he believed a $10 billion bill pending in the House could temporarily delay the trust fund problem. He noted almost two dozen examples of extensions to federal funding in the past decade.
Tagert said Mississippi receives half its transportation funding – $460 million – from the Highway Trust Fund, which depends on fuel tax revenue to serve needs in all the states.
Although far from enacted, the House’s action offers hope that some kind of solution can be crafted.
The move by the House Ways and Means Committee sets up a potential battle with Senate Democrats who are pushing for a tax-raising solution that goes past next May. The full House is expected to consider the committee’s legislation next week.
“It is imperative that we keep the Highway Trust Fund solvent,” U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said. “I am carefully reviewing the proposals being considered by the House and Senate. I am hopeful that Congress can reach agreement on a responsible and fiscally-sound plan soon.”
Chris Gallegos, press spokesman for Sen. Thad Cochran said, “Sen. Cochran will review the proposals being developed in the House and Senate to address the near-term solvency of the Highway Trust Fund. He understands that we need a fiscally responsible plan that gives states the certainty they need to efficiently carry out highway and infrastructure projects.”
The GOP proposal relies mostly on revenue from pension changes and customs fees to offset the bulk of the cost of replenishing the Highway Trust Fund, according to The Hill, a Capitol newspaper. Democrats want to increase the federal gasoline and diesel taxes, last raised in 1993.
Tagert said trust fund insolvency would create immediate problems for Mississippi projects, citing as a possible example paving work on U.S. Highway 45 in Monroe County.
Tagert said a worst-case scenario would mean stop-work orders if the flow of federal funds were to stop and prevent reimbursement of Mississippi’s spending of its own revenues.
Mississippi Department of Transportation Executive Director Melinda McGrath has said insolvency would mean it “will be necessary to pull all state-funded maintenance projects open for bid in July.”
Published statements by U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx detailed how the Federal Highway Administration will implement payments for road projects if the funding issues are not resolved.
According to a letter, if a new funding plan is not put in place by Congress, states will see a 28 percent drop in transportation funding. Foxx and many others are urging Congress to come up with a solution to fund the Highway Trust Fund before Aug. 1. After that date, Foxx has said there will be a change in the way states are paid for federal projects.