Natchez Trace bridge costly, no matter what

By Emily Le Coz / NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – It’s like one of those annoying math problems.
You have two bridges: One is a two-lane span over a five-lane road; the other a five-lane span over a two-lane road. Which costs more to build?
The answer: They’ll both probably cost the same. And the two-lane bridge might actually cost a bit more.
At least, that’s what engineers and other road officials say about the northern loop bridge planned over the Natchez Trace Parkway. But the five-lane bridge will cost an estimated $6 million – more than one-third of its originally projected price.
And unless engineers can reduce its costs, the group responsible for the bridge will delay another highly anticipated road project – the widening of South Gloster Street.
Some people recently have questioned if building a five-lane bridge over the two-lane parkway makes sense. Maybe, they reasoned, it would be cheaper to build a two-lane bridge over the five-lane northern loop.
The matter has been debated in letters to the editor, in business forums and, most recently, in a meeting of the Major Thoroughfare Committee.
The committee oversees the Major Thoroughfare Program, a $20 million, taxpayer-funded initiative to build and improve roads throughout the city.
As part of its current five-year phase, the committee is building a new road – the northern loop – connecting west Tupelo to the Barnes Crossing shopping district. That road must cross both U.S. Highway 78 and the Natchez Trace Parkway.
Because the parkway is nationally protected, its representatives must sign off on any construction that could affect its natural and aesthetic value.
Its officials decided the new five-lane road should go over the two-lane parkway rather than the parkway going over the new road. Doing so, they said, would preserve the view from the road – known as the scenic view shed – that makes the parkway unique.
That’s because the two roads will cross near a commercial district whose view already proves difficult to block from the parkway. If the parkway were elevated there, it would become even harder to shield motorists from the sight of big-box stores like Walmart and Sam’s Club.
“This is a national parkway; it shouldn’t be beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, and then Walmart, Sams, and then beautiful again,” committee Chairman Greg Pirkle said during a meeting Wednesday at City Hall. “If you take it further into the air, there’s no way to preserve integrity of the view shed there.”
Not only that, but elevating the parkway over five lanes would require a longer bridge with longer approaches. It also would mean tearing down a half mile of trees and other landscape features on both sides of the bridge. It also would affect wetlands and possibly Native American lands, said engineer John White of ESI.
And, finally, it would mean closing the parkway for a year or so while construction took place. Either that, or building a bypass around the parkway to divert traffic during construction.
“The selected alternative is the least impactful to the view shed and wetlands of the Trace, but I believe it’s the less expensive option as well,” Natchez Trace Superintendent Cam Sholly told the Daily Journal on Thursday. “To me, it’s not even close.”
But the Natchez Trace requires any bridge crossing its parkway to meet strict aesthetic guidelines. In other words, it can’t be an ugly bridge. And that has driven up cost estimates, as has the rising price of asphalt and other construction materials in the time since its original projection was calculated.
Those factors would remain whether the new road went over the parkway or the parkway over the new road.
The Major Thoroughfare Committee set aside $4 million for the bridge. And while the bridge itself will cost just that, each ramp leading to the bridge will cost an additional $1 million. That wasn’t factored into the original costs.
Sholly said he’s working with city and committee officials to lower the price by skimping on certain features. But it’s unclear yet whether they’ll achieve the desired price.
If not, the committee must drop another road project in the current phase to save money. That project, members said, is South Gloster Street.
South Gloster is slated to be widened to five lanes. It now has four. The fifth lane will go down the middle of the street for safer left-hand turns.
Some, like South Gloster Street businessman Rudy Dossett Jr. and Ward 3 City Councilman Jim Newell, said the fifth lane is imperative for that area to thrive economically. They don’t want to see the project delayed.
Neither do members of the Major Thoroughfare Committee, who said this week they’ll try to launch that project as soon as possible.
But until final bridge designs are complete, they don’t know what the future holds for South Gloster.
If the widening project is delayed, it’ll become top priority for the program’s next five-year phase, set to start Jan. 1. But that phase needs voter approval.
So far, city voters have supported the Major Thoroughfare Program each time it comes up for election the second Tuesday in May.
This year’s election hasn’t been set yet.

Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or emily.lecoz@journalinc.com.