By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Committee passage of the Major Thoroughfare Program’s next $20 million phase Wednesday didn’t end an ongoing city debate about how the money should be spent.
But it’s a start.
Still at issue is whether Tupelo should divert some of those funds to neighborhood revitalization and how exactly $5 million for smaller street projects should be handled.
The MTP committee capped a long meeting at City Hall by unanimously approving a list of priorities for its next phase, which would begin Jan. 1 and last five years. But the City Council must first OK the list, and then it goes before Tupelo voters in a special election, usually held the second Tuesday in May.
Said Ward 5 City Councilman Jonny Davis immediately after the meeting: “It’s important that the public knows the City Council hasn’t met to discuss the recommendations put before the thoroughfare committee. I was hoping they wouldn’t vote today, that we’d have more discussion.”
All seven council members attended the meeting, as did Mayor Jack Reed Jr., city Chief Operations Officer Darrell Smith, Development Services Director BJ Teal, Tupelo Public School District COO Billy Crews, and several residents and business owners.
The group talked for more than two hours about which projects deserved top billing in the next phase, as well as why projects in the current phase have lagged or exceeded cost estimates. They also debated the merits of setting aside $5 million for smaller street projects recommended by the city and whether they should divert even more funds toward neighborhood revitalization.
“We have a comprehensive plan that talks about what kind of city we want to be in 2025, and the city hasn’t put one dollar into it,” Reed said.
He was referring to the Tupelo 2025 plan, which cost $120,000 to develop and was first adopted by the city in 2008. It is re-adopted by the council each year.
“We’re losing our middle class unless we reinvest in our neighborhoods all over town and make it a more livable city,” Reed added. “Unless we want a tax increase, we’ve got to look at allocating the resources we do have.”
The Major Thoroughfare Program raises its funds through a 10-mill property levy, accounting for one-third of the city’s ad-valorum taxes. It has been in place for two decades, with residents voting to extend it every five years.
The program currently is in its fourth phase, and each phase has produced a series of major road improvements – the widening of North Gloster and West Main streets, Coley Road and Eason and Cliff Gookin boulevards, as well as the construction of a new road to the Barnes Crossing district.
Some, like the mayor and City Council President Fred Pitts, think it’s time to consider allocating those funds toward neighborhood improvements instead of just roads. Pitts even suggested delaying the public vote so the city could develop a new plan for the next phase.
But many MTP committee members oppose that idea.
“One of the things that made the Major Thoroughfare Program work is the simplicity of it,” said committee member Brad Prewitt. Voters “can see a plan and can see an end game to it. If we get real complicated here, it’ll crash and burn.”
Ultimately, the plan approved by the committee after Wednesday’s discussion made no mention of neighborhood revitalization. Instead, it looked nearly identical to the one recommended by an MTP subcommittee in December, with the exception of one addition: West Jackson Street.
If approved, the next phase will widen a portion of Eason Boulevard near the college to three lanes; widen a portion of East Main Street to five lanes; widen a portion of South Thomas Street to three lanes and connect it to the new Highway 6; add right-hand turn lanes to North Gloster Street near the mall; widen a portion of West Jackson Street to three lanes near the airport; widen a portion of Veterans Boulevard to five lanes.
It’d also set aside 2.5 mill – $5 million – to improve smaller streets as recommended by the city Public Works Department.
It’s $23 million worth of projects, but that price doesn’t include engineering, utility relocation or legal fees, which could add about 10 percent. In years past, the group has raised additional funds from state and federal grants and allocations.
That has been the case in the current phase, where the Mississippi Department of Transportation has agreed to build an estimated $5 million bridge over the new road to the mall, and federal stimulus money paid for the $2.3 million bridge over Eason Boulevard. Other outside funds will help pay a portion of widening South Gloster Street, which has been on the to-do list for at least five years.
But the South Gloster widening remains in limbo after cost estimates for another project – the bridge over the Natchez Trace Parkway on the new road – exceeded cost projections by $2 million. If engineers can’t reduce its costs, the committee will bump South Gloster to the next phase in order to complete the bridge.
That has angered many in the community, including Ward 3 City Councilman Jim Newell and South Gloster businessman Rudy Dossett Jr.
Committee members said Wednesday that they hoped to do both projects in the current phase. But if they can’t, they promised South Gloster would jump to top priority the next phase.
The council is expected to meet for a work session Tuesday at City Hall, where an MTP discussion could take place. The council’s next official meeting is Feb. 1. It’s unclear, though, if members will be ready to vote on the Phase 5 recommendations at that time.
Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or firstname.lastname@example.org.