TUPELO – The Tupelo Regional Airport may eventually extend its runway, but it might take a little longer than originally planned.
On Tuesday, the Tupelo Airport Authority called for a review of the five-year-old project. A resolution, approved by a 4-1 vote, essentially supports the extension and sees improvements at the airport a necessity in the growth of the entire region.
However, board members were uneasy about another part of the plan – the closure and rerouting of West Jackson Street Extended, which runs perpendicular to the runway and provides access to Coley Road.
Airport Executive Director Terry Anderson says the road already is in violation of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Runway Protection Zone rule that bars traffic near runways, and that it needs to be moved whether the extension happens or not.
But that has been the biggest point of contention, and it threatens to kill the entire runway project.
Opponents say that moving West Jackson Extended would choke off a vital east-west corridor through the Tupelo. And City Council members expressed similar concerns at a meeting Monday.
“We need to see what other options are available before going forward,” said airport authority chairman Dan Kellum. “I feel uncomfortable ramrodding it through … and it might alienate a lot of citizens.”
A tunnel for West Jackson Extended has been proposed and received the most support, but funding – and federal approval – is not guaranteed.
Tuesday’s resolution also asks that engineering firm Neel-Schaffer provide additional information and alternatives for an east-west connection. The project now calls for rerouting West Jackson on a course north of Colonial Estates Road, adding another two lanes, extended crossing arms over the railroad track and a turn signal at the McCullough Boulevard intersection.
Smitty Harris said he, too, likes having a tunnel, but is afraid that delaying the project could mean the loss of millions of federal dollars, in addition to years of prep work leading up to the project.
He voted against Tuesday’s measure.
“We essentially have approval now for the runway extension and for improving Colonial Estates all the way down to McCullough Boulevard,” he said. “We need to focus long-term on getting the tunnel, but if we don’t act now, we could delay this project for a number of years.”
Harris said that federal money would improve Colonial Estate Road, a cost that the city would otherwise have to bear.
“My thought is to go ahead with what we can do with FAA money, which is providing an alternate route to McCullough,” he continued. “Get that done, then extend the runway. That way, we have an alternate route and then we can also pursue getting a tunnel.”
The project would build the new road first before closing West Jackson Extended. But going for the tunnel route first would mean closing the road first, before making any improvements to Colonial Estates Road.
Anderson said he doesn’t think the authority’s action has killed the project, but has added more engineering work.
“The FAA will complete the environmental assessment and the four to five years of work and the nearly $1 million spent will hopefully be the basis for any additional review,” he said.
Asking Neel-Schaffer to discuss its findings and conduct further engineering studies would be duplication of some of the efforts that already have been made since 2004, Anderson said.
And he disagrees with the argument that the runway project has been rushed.
“This project has been part of Tupelo Airport Authority board discussions and decisions since April 12, 2004,” he said. “More than 20 board action items have been voted on and each of them were unanimous. This process is a deliberate and closely scrutinized one by FAA. It requires that a whole list of criteria be met in order for the project to be accepted as eligible on the National Plan of Integrated Airport System. We met all eligibility requirements. Many of the same milestones that were presented to the board were also briefed to the mayor in department head meetings. This, by any litmus test, was not rushed or hushed.”
Still, the authority said they wanted to build a consensus before going back to the City Council and Mayor Jack Reed Jr.
“It’s time to stop and take a look at where we are,” said authority board member Bo Gibens. “There’s no urgency in this thing, in my opinion. It’s better that we do it right … I don’t think we need to go back to the City Council until we get a general consensus. This has many citizens concerned.”
Dennis Seid/NEMS Daily Journal