State to make federal road funds competitive

TUPELO – For the first time in recent memory, Mississippi will make some cities compete for federal road dollars they used to get automatically each year.
Communities with the best proposals and the ability to match the most local money will win a portion of the estimated $7.5 million pot, which comes from the Surface Transportation Program – or STP, administered by the Mississippi Department of Transportation. Those who fail to apply or whose projects underwhelm the judges will walk away empty handed.
“You could be in a good position to do something even larger than before, but then again, you lose out on some money you were used to getting on a regular basis,” said Dave Huwe, Corinth’s director of Community Development and Planning.
Corinth entered the competitive process this year – the deadline to apply is today – but Huwe said he’s not sure the city can afford the 20 percent match if it wins. It submitted a $325,304 proposal to put an additional turn lane at the intersection of South Parkway Street and U.S. Highway 72. It would have to pay more than $65,000 toward the project, plus all preliminary planning and design costs, which aren’t covered by STP funds.
The city used to get about $220,000 in STP money each year.
Not everyone will apply for the funds this year, either because they have no immediate needs or because they lack a fully developed concept to submit.
MDOT announced the change earlier this summer. It gave qualifying cities just weeks to prepare an application.
“Historically, we used to give everybody a small piece of the pie based on their population, so a small town would get $80,000, and you can’t do anything with that,” said Randy Battey, MDOT’s assistant chief engineer over operations.
“So now cities commit to match some money, and cities that are willing to over-match get priority if they demonstrate they can meet a need,” Battey said. “Of course, we’ll have way more applications than the $7.5 million can cover.”
About 40 cities statewide qualify for the funds, which must go to communities with populations between 5,000 and 50,000 people. And they must be outside a metropolitan area. That excludes cities around Jackson, Memphis or the Gulf Coast.
Allocations under this system will max at $1.5 million.
Several cities in Northeast Mississippi have benefited from STP funds in the past. They include Aberdeen, Amory, Booneville, New Albany, Oxford, Pontotoc, Tupelo, Ripley and West Point.
Amory Mayor Howard Boozer said his city won’t apply this year. It just finished an STP-funded road project using money it had squirreled away the past three years: It upgraded its industrial park access road, Waterway Drive, for $312,000.
Most smaller cities save several years’ worth of STP funds for one project, Battey said. It’s one of the reasons MDOT changed the system this time.
But Amory likely will apply next year, said City Planner and Zoning Administrator Russell Butler.
“We really didn’t have time to develop the projects when we were notified before,” he said, “because there’s a lot of pre-engineering work to go into it.”
Tupelo will enter the competition. The City Council met Tuesday to approve an application for roughly $1 million to overlay a portion of Eason Boulevard and put sidewalks along stretches of North Green and North Gloster streets.
Northeast Mississippi’s largest city used to get about $1.2 million annually in STP funds. It typically went to the Major Thoroughfare Program.
Battey said he hopes to notify communities whether or not they won by mid-October.
emily.lecoz@journalinc.com

Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal