Stimulus funds target repaving, bridge repair

JACKSON – Federal stimulus funds will help speed the four-laning of state highways, but not necessarily those targeted in the ambitious Vision 21 road-improvement project.
Some legislators and transportation officials have expressed concern about the slow progress made on Vision 21, which was passed by the Legislature in 2002 to four-lane more than 1,000 miles of new highways, including priority projects in Northeast Mississippi like state Highways 15 and 25.
But most of the $354 million allocated for Mississippi roads in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed by Congress in February is going to repave existing roadways and to make needed improvements on bridges.
Under the law, stimulus funds are supposed to be spent on projects where actual work can begin immediately.
Four-laning highways often is a much slower process, requiring land acquisition and environmental studies. For instance, said Larry “Butch” Brown, executive director of the Mississippi Department of Transportation, concerns about the environment and the preservation of historic buildings are slowing work on state Highways 15 and 9 in Northeast Mississippi.
Northern District Transportation Commissioner Bill Minor of Holly Springs said that while four-laning is important, roads and bridges must be maintained. Stimulus funds, he said, can be used to do some of that work, freeing other money for Vision 21 projects.
“The stimulus package is helping out – mostly on repaving. Some of our existing roads were needing work. We need to maintain what we four-laned in the ’87 program,” he said, referring to the landmark highway-building project of 1987.
Brown said Mississippi received $354 million in stimulus funds for road work. Part of that went, as the law mandates, to major metropolitan areas in DeSoto County, around Jackson and on the Gulf Coast.
Then MDOT opted to provide $14 million to the counties for work on their main roads, leaving the state $270 million.
Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall said Mississippi asked for a lot more stimulus funds. Before the stimulus package was passed, he said, the focus was on money for infrastructure improvements that were needed and at the same time would create construction jobs.
“I thought that was a great idea,” said Hall, a Republican. “…Unfortunately, by the time Congress got through and the president signed it, only 3 percent of the package would go for roads and bridges.”
House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, admitted, “We had hoped to get more stimulus money for highways. But we did get a good bit.”

Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison @djournal.com.

Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal