By Carlie Kollath/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – It has been a year since Main Street in downtown Tupelo was restriped to three lanes.
The initial change from four lanes to two lanes plus a turn lane was met by some with enthusiasm at the possibility of a safer, revitalized area. It was met by others with disdain, saying it would slow down traffic and hurt their business or commute.
The goal of the project was to make downtown Tupelo more appealing to shoppers, diners and tourists, while also making it accessible to various modes of transportation, primarily pedestrians and cyclists.
A year later, downtown merchants still are divided in their opinions, but many say they haven’t seen much of a change with traffic on Main Street. And the ones that have noticed differences don’t agree with each other. Some say vehicles are faster because they get more green lights. Others say traffic is slower because of the reduced lanes and better light synchronization.
Officers with Tupelo Police Department said they haven’t noticed a change in the number of speeding tickets, crash reports or other violations in the past year compared to the previous year.
“Traffic hasn’t become worse,” said Alan Chavers with TPD’s traffic division. “I don’t think it’s made it better either.”
The best part of the restriping so far, downtown merchants said, is the extra space given to vehicles when they parallel park on the street. The worst part, mentioned even by those who love the configuration, is the delayed traffic on the side streets along Main Street.
But more often mentioned was the question about what the status is. Downtown merchants and residents said they heard a lot about the project before the three-lane traffic configuration went into effect and while it was in a 12-week test. Yet, they said they haven’t heard anything in months.
“Unfortunately, we don’t have progress to report because we’re still working on East Main,” said Jon Milstead, vice president of planning at the Community Development Foundation. “This is normal for any kind of road project.”
Milstead worked with Debbie Brangenberg of the Main Street Association to put together the project’s grant application to the state Department of Transportation.
The project, officially called the downtown Main Street enhancement project and Elvis Presley Birthplace Trail, is much bigger than the current restriping of Main Street.
It includes synchronization of traffic signals on Main Street from Green to Elizabeth streets; a bike path and walking trail from downtown Tupelo to the Elvis Presley Birthplace and Museum; additional on-street parking spaces; pedestrian amenities such as decorative crosswalks and pedestrian signals; decorative street lights; and the addition of more than $280,000 worth of trees, plants, grass and irrigation.
The entire project comes in at $2,865,402. Federal sources are funding 80 percent of the project, and the City Council in 2010 voted for the city to provide the required 20 percent match.
In the application, dated July 2010, the writers said they hoped to begin construction in summer 2011. But, the City Council asked for a test of the three lanes. The six-week test started March 14, 2011, and was extended to 12 weeks.
In June 2011, the City Council voted 5-2 to approve the agreement with the DOT for funding and to hire ESI to do the design engineering services on the project. Construction at that time was estimated to start this spring.
But, Milstead said, the group is still waiting to hear back from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“We submitted information to FEMA last July and we’re supposed to have a 90-day turnaround,” he said. “We have not had that.”
Milstead said the request relates to changes to the flood maps. The request will determine if two of the bridges on East Main Street between Highway 45 and Veterans Boulevard will be widened at the current height, left alone or widened and elevated.
“Everything else we’re doing hinges on the bridges being widened,” he said. “We don’t have a plan B. If they go ahead and engineer the rest of the project with the bridges widened and FEMA doesn’t OK it, they’ve wasted a lot of time and money.”
FEMA spokeswoman Mary Olsen said the agency received the application in August 2011 and has been working with the city “to clarify as they have questions.”
“We have been working with them to make ourselves available but we have to have a completed request before that determination is issued,” she said.
She also added that the back-and-forth discussions are common, along with the request of additional information.
The Major Thoroughfare Committee is watching the project closely, as well. The group has partnered with Main Street on the project to save money on the work from Highway 45 to Veterans.
The Major Throughfare part of the project pays for the 45-to-Veterans portion on Main Street to be widened to five lanes, said Greg Pirkle, chairman of the committee. The entire downtown Tupelo-to-birthplace project will be let as one contract, he said.
He said committee members have discussed other options since the delay, such as restriping the bridges to five lanes and then adding a turn lane after the bridge. The bridges currently can accommodate five lanes, he said, but don’t have space for bike lanes and a walking trail.
“At least for the moment, we’ll wait until we get a nod from FEMA one way or the other before we make a recommendation,” he said.
Milstead said he hopes to get preliminary approval from FEMA in 45 to 60 days. Then, the engineers will need about three months to design the bridges. Then, Brangenberg said they’ll meet with the City Council to show renderings and get approval.
If everything goes as planned, construction may start on the bridges this fall, Milstead said.
Then, other work can start, such as repaving Main Street, adding new equipment to control the traffic lights and planting trees and other landscaping.
The construction process, Brangenberg said, could take 12 to 18 months, depending on weather.
But until then, the road will stay how it is. Milstead said the temporary tape is holding up and the orange barrels are effective.
Added Brangenberg, “We’re as anxious as anybody to see something concrete – no pun intended.”