By Chris Wilson/Monroe Journal
AMORY — At a packed courtroom at the Monroe County Government Complex Monday morning, Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) Northern District Commissioner Mike Tagert told the residents of Smithville and other concerned citizens that the MDOT was seeking input about what the town wanted for the future of Highway 25.
Despite the fact that the MDOT has a proposed route plan for a controlled acess road that would have Highway 25 bypassing the town of Smithville, Tagert said this plan could be altered if another more viable option is put forward.
MDOT Interim Executive Director Melinda McGrath said that while the Highway 25 project to determine a route for the four-lane was begun in 2000, the legislature passed a law that said it had to be a controlled access highway, much like an interstate with interchanges for exiting and entering. A 2003 environmental document then set the corridor that the highway would take, avoiding pristine wetlands and limiting adverse impact on the community. The plan that is currently on the books would have the bypass going around Smithville quite a distance from the town’s main business area once businesses rebuild where they had been before the tornado’s devastation. McGrath said the right-of-way has not been purchased for that route yet and the plan could change if that’s what the people of Smithville want and if it’s possible to reroute the highway. Changing to a different plan would save a substantial amount of money, McGarth said.
She said the public needs to decide whether they want a busy four- or five-lane state highway passing directly through the center of their downtown business district or not. With much of the downtown business district destroyed and gone, the possibility exists for changing the original plan.
MDOT District Engineer Bill Jamison said Rep. Donnie Bell and Rep. Jimmy Puckett both said they would support new legislation for the highway in Smithville if the people want that, allowing it to be an open access highway.
McGarth advised the people of Smithville to not rush into a decision regarding Highway 25.
When the meeting was opened up to questions, most in attendance expressed the desire to begin rebuilding their town quickly and said they’d rather have businesses in downtown Smithville than a bypass that keeps business from stopping there.
Jamison said following the tornado, the town of Smithville had requested that the MDOT re-look at the plan for Hwy. 25 in Smithville. “We looked at a south of Smithville tie in,” Jamison said. Another plan would have the highway west of the school.
Jamison said the MDOT already has a 50-foot right-of-way along Hwy. 25 south of the railroad tracks. If the town were to decide it wanted a five-lane Hwy. 25 passing where the existing highway is, then there would likely be enough right-of-way already owned by the state to do that. “It’d be close,” he said. “I couldn’t say for sure.”
Some business owners who are wanting to rebuild their businesses soon, expressed concern about whether the MDOT might come in after they rebuild and want the land for the highway’s right-of-way. Other citizens who live outside of Smithville but in an area that would be impacted by the Highway 25 relocation, wanted to know what Smithville’s possible change in plan would do to the Amory portion of the Highway 25 project.
McGarth said the money for four-laning highways in Mississippi is “very tight.” The money for the Smithville bypass project isn’t even there yet. It could be a long time before that project even were to happen. However, she said the MDOT already has funding for the Amory bypass project and it will proceed as planned regardless of what Smithville decides it needs to do.
Another possible route for Highway 25 to pass through Smithville was closer to the Tenn-Tom Waterway, but Jamison said that route is problematic because of the cemetery, wetlands and Corps-owned land, as well as the fact that the town’s sewage lagoon would have to be moved.
McGarth said if the town wants to change the highway’s route, the process for approval is a lengthy process and can take up to two to three years.
The MDOT is currently marking its right-of-ways with red ribboned stakes, 10 feet from each side of the center line. Mayor Kennedy told the audience that the many other stakes they see in the ground are designating other infrastructure: green is sewer lines, yellow is natural gas lines, blue is water lines.
Some areas aren’t marked at all because the Corps of Engineers still plans to demolish properties on them and they cannot be accessed until a clearance is given. They are considered work zones right now.
Ira Kennedy suggested that the MDOT consider a three-lane Highway 25 through Smithville, then homes could be rebuilt and extra right-of-way wouldn’t be needed.
Jamison said a three-lane highway in the existing Highway 25 site would be a separate issue than the bypass project.
Mayor Kennedy assured everyone that the town’s officials and committees that are looking at the issues will do what’s best for Smithville and Monroe County.
Tagert concluded by saying that there is only one approved route right now for a controlled access highway that bypasses Smithville. The plan in Smithville in no way changes previously made MDOT plans for the Amory four-lane project. “We will continue to look at options to determine what will work for your city,” Tagert said.
Kennedy advised Smithville residents to be sure they are not rebuilding on state right-of-way. “Build back,” he told them. “But not on state highway property.”