BY LENA MITCHELL
In July 1992, then-Gov. Kirk Fordice signed a law creating the state Department of Transportation, transforming Mississippi's highway commissioners into transportation commissioners.
The change in title reflects the expanded scope of the job, which now encompasses highways, airports, railroads, ports and waterways, public transit, weight enforcement and state aid.
But because Mississippi is a largely rural state with limited access to airports and waterways, most of the commissioner's efforts go toward state highways, state assistance for local road projects and rail freight transportation issues.
The 1987 state highway program that promised 1,000 miles of new four-lane roads across the state is expected to reach that goal by 2006.
To keep the momentum of roadbuilding going, the Legislature last year approved a new four-laning program named Vision 21. The new legislation incorporates 3,500 miles for four-laning, more than doubling the 1,600 miles recommended by MDOT.
Vision 21 projects will dovetail with the 1987 program, since the legislation prevents any Vision 21 projects being started until the last 1987 program project is under contract, estimated to be about 2005 or 2006.
Retiring Northern District Transportation Commissioner Zack Stewart roundly criticized legislators for the bill.
He said they included road projects to appease their constituents rather than approving what could realistically be accomplished based on what the department's professional engineers recommended.
Vision 21 is not expected to require new taxes, since it keeps in place the taxes that financed the 1987 four-laning program: 3.6 cents per gallon on gasoline; 3.25 cents on diesel fuel and 3.5 cents on compressed gas.
What the 1987 program did not include, however, were funds to maintain the roads it constructed.
The Vision 21 bill includes a provision giving the department greater flexibility in spending both federal and state highway funds. State funds can be used for highway maintenance as well as a match to attract more federal funds.
Among the key initiatives for North Mississippi is to win congressional approval for U.S. Highway 78 from Memphis to Birmingham to be named an interstate highway, the proposed I-22.
County and local officials and economic developers made a special trip to Washington last year to press federal lawmakers for quick action.
Major manufacturers and businesses seldom consider sites for relocation unless they have interstate access, they said.
Behind the push of U.S. Rep. Roger Wicker, R-Tupelo, the House of Representatives included the I-22 provision in its highway funding appropriations bill this fall.
Wicker expressed optimism at the time that the provision would survive conference negotiations with the Senate and be included in the final bill.
Completing the four-lane east-west route, Mississippi Highway 6 from Clarksdale to the Alabama state line, is considered another high North Mississippi priority.
Also on the list is giving North Mississippi businesses a north-south four-lane outlet along Mississippi Highway 15.
Perhaps no Northern Transportation District city is as affected by railroads traveling through the downtown business district as Tupelo.
The city has renewed focus on the issue during the past year and commissioned a study of the cost of relocating the two rail systems – Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway and Kansas City Southern.
The estimates to relocate both lines around the city came in from $77 million for one alternate route to $123 million for another.
Tupelo Mayor Larry Otis has been working with Wicker to find about $3 million for planning, which includes conducting an environmental assessment, as the next step in moving the process along.
With only seven commercial aviation airports throughout the state, MDOT provides critical services for the state's many general aviation airstrips.
It acts as an intermediary for those small airports with the Federal Aviation Administration, as well as being a significant funding source, providing the state match for federal grants.
The ports and waterways division of MDOT has a broader role, overseeing issues of seaports and river ports, locks, dams, flood control structures and navigable waterways, with homeland security issues taking priority in recent years.
The department has worked with the Legislature, the Appalachian Regional Commission and other agencies to promote multimodal cooperation and to support multimodal opportunities in the state.