By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal
ACKSON – The Senate on Wednesday more than doubled the amount of money for the four-laning of state Highway 9 from Pontotoc to the yet-to-be-opened Toyota manufacturing plant in Blue Springs.
Without a dissenting vote, senators approved a $300 million highway construction bond bill that provides $90 million to four-lane Highway 9 south of the Toyota plant.
The House passed a $300 million bond bill Tuesday that provides $42 million for the Highway 9 project.
The differences in the legislation most likely will be worked out in a conference of House and Senate leaders.
The Legislature is dealing with improving transportation around the $1.3 billion plant even as Toyota has postponed indefinitely the opening of the plant because of sagging sales and now faces questions about its massive recalls.
Senate Transportation Committee Chair Tom King, R-Petal, said Gov. Haley Barbour insisted state Highway 9 four-laning be included in the bond bill.
King said, “The governor said, ‘I promise they will be building cars there before the road is built.’”
Senate Finance Chair Dean Kirby, R-Pearl, said senators were told the $90 million would be more than enough to complete the 10-mile section of highway with money left over to begin work on the northern section running from around the Toyota plant to Guntown.
The House passed an amendment, offered by Northeast Mississippi legislators, to ban money from being spent on the northern section of the route.
Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, said landowners in the area opposed the highway and that suppliers in Guntown moving trucks to and from the Toyota plant could use the existing four-lanes of U.S. 78 and 45.
But economic developers said it is key to provide access to the plant for suppliers without clogging up existing roadways.
In past years, Barbour has blocked efforts to issue bonds to speed up highway construction and to make bridge repairs. But King has said he is optimistic a transportation bond bill can be passed this year.
Wednesday was the final day for both chambers to pass bond proposals.
On Wednesday, the Senate, in addition to the $300 million in highway bonds, passed a $181.7 million bond proposal for work at the universities, community colleges and state offices.
The House proposal, passed Tuesday, was $400 million.
Later in the process, the two sides will try to hammer out a final agreement.
The House proposal included $4 million for enhancements to the Elvis Presley Birthplace and Museum on Tuesday. The Senate proposal did not. But by passing the House, it will remain alive in the process.