House approves Toyota-related road bonds

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – The state House took action Tuesday to make access to the Toyota manufacturing plant at Blue Springs easier for Pontotoc Countians even though its opening has been delayed indefinitely.
In a 90-30 vote, the House approved a bond package that includes $42 million for the four-laning of a 10-mile stretch of state Highway 9 from the city of Pontotoc to Sherman, near the Toyota plant. The overall cost of the four-laning project will be about $100 million.
The vote represented the beginning of the legislative process for the bond measure, which still must get through the Senate.
During debate on the House floor, Transportation Chair Warner McBride, D-Courtland, was asked if it is wise to forge ahead with the project since Toyota has not committed to a date for the plant’s opening.
“These are bonds that won’t be issued for three or four years,” McBride said. “By that time, we will have a better idea of Toyota’s situation … We want to let them know we are still committed.”
Toyota announced in late 2008 it was delaying the opening of its $1.3 billion Blue Springs plant until the economy improves. More recently, Toyota has been struggling with its massive recall, which is the subject of congressional hearings this week.
David Rumbarger, chief executive officer of the Tupelo-based Community Development Foundation, said it is still important to deal with traffic issues near the plant.
“I don’t think anything has changed,” Rumbarger said. “They are still coming. They are still going to build vehicles. It is just a matter of when.”
The plant was supposed to open late this year, but that is not likely.
Northeast Mississippi House members did successfully push through an amendment that would prevent funds in the bond bill from being used for a new four-lane state Highway 9 from Blue Springs to state Highway 348 near Guntown.
The amendment was offered by Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, and co-sponsored by Reps. Brian Aldridge, R-Tupelo, Jerry Turner, R-Baldwyn, and Margaret Ellis Rogers, D-New Albany. Holland said people in the area opposed the planned new highway.
He said the truck traffic from Toyota to Auto Parts Manufacturing of Mississippi near Guntown, a major Toyota supplier, could use U.S. Highway 78 and U.S. Highway 45 instead of a new highway.
Rumbarger said the new highway was designed to provide an alternate route for the heavy traffic between the two plants and to keep congestion from getting worse at U.S. 78 and U.S. 45 at The Mall at Barnes Crossing.
The bond bill includes $300 million for highway and bridge construction, including Highway 9 in Pontotoc County. It also would provide:
• $138 million to repair substandard bridges on state highways.
• $40 million for work on bridges on county and municipal roadways. McBride said the bridges are safety issue and the local governments do not have the funds to repair them.
• $80 million to speed up work on priority highways in the state’s Vision 21 four-laning program. Many of those highways are located in Northeast Mississippi.
In what was a chaotic process on the House floor, amendments were passed by members to add highways in their districts to the five listed as priority four-laning projects. Those added were primarily in the Mississippi Delta, plus state Highway 7 in north-central Mississippi.
But the package has a long way to go in the legislative process. In recent years, the House has passed bills to issue bonds to finance highway projects only to see the proposal die in the Senate.
Senate Transportation Chair Tom King, R-Petal, has expressed interest in passing a bond bill for transportation needs this year.
The House also passed a massive $410 million bond package that includes $4 million to enhance the Elvis Presley Birthplace in Tupelo. It also included money for repair and renovation at the universities and community colleges.
Some of those bonds would be for loan programs, such as to small businesses, where the state would be repaid.
“This is a work in progress,” said House Ways and Means Chair Percy Watson, D-Hattiesburg. “This gets the process started.”

Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@djournal.com.