By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal
PONTOTOC – One question dominates most conversations about the Tanglefoot Trail: When will it open?
Promoters of the conversion of 44 miles of abandoned railway between New Albany and Houston anticipate the trail’s attracting thousands of hikers, bicyclists and horseback riders to the area, boosting tourism and giving rise to new businesses, as the Longleaf Trace has done between Hattiesburg and Prentiss.
While all but about four miles of the 44-mile stretch has been paved, some bridge work still is pending, and construction on gateway buildings, “whistle stop” rest areas and rain shelters is in the early stages, board members of the GM&O Rails-to-Trails District heard Friday.
Contracts call for trail construction essentially to be finished in early June, and rest stop buildings are to be finished by Aug. 1, and state and federal authorities will have to inspect and approve the trail’s construction.
“We’re somewhat at the mercy of the Federal Highway Administration and MDOT on that. It won’t open until they say so,” said Mike Falkner of Engineering Solutions Inc., which is overseeing the project.
Randy Kelley, executive director of Three Rivers Planning and Development District, said one unanswered question to the trail’s opening depends on the timing of another federally funded project.
“The key is how they’re going to deal with the I-22 crossing,” he said, referring to the current upgrading of U.S. Highway 78, including bridge expansions in New Albany. “It could be early September if they don’t allow us to open prior to the completion of the I-22 construction.”
Falkner added, “If they’re doing overhead work on the bridge, they don’t want anybody under it, but they should be through in time for us to pave that small section.”
Other parts of the project are moving forward: Board members voted Friday to contract with Three Rivers to employ a trail maintenance supervisor and a trail manager.
They also agreed to pursue a potential gift of land that could serve as a parking lot for the Houston trailhead.
Organizers hope that Tanglefoot may be opened before the end of summer, but they’re being conservative in their estimates.
“When people ask me, I say, ‘September,’” said board chairman Betsey Hamilton of New Albany. “I don’t want to have to backtrack.”