Tupelo train study stalls longer than anticipated

By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – The city’s $2 million railroad relocation study, which has sat idle nearly one year, could chug forward again by late spring or early summer.
Since July, a host of state and federal agencies have reviewed and commented on the study’s preliminary draft report, called an environmental impact statement, or EIS.
It was submitted by the Mississippi Department of Transportation, which oversees the study. MDOT, in turn, has been fielding questions and gathering comments from those agencies.
When all the comments and questions are answered, MDOT will update its draft report and present it to the city at a public hearing, said Kim Thurman, MDOT’s environmental division administrator.
Thurman last year had estimated a hearing occurring sometime in the fall of 2009, but that didn’t happen. Now, it’s likely to be May or June.
The EIS capped years of research, interviews and engineering on how to solve Tupelo’s vehicular-rail traffic woes.
Although the process began with numerous options, MDOT narrowed them down to one: raising the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad track that currently cuts through the center of Tupelo. The elevated rail would alleviate daily traffic congestion caused by the frequent passing trains.
Other options included rerouting the train around the town along one of numerous proposed paths. None was deemed feasible by the study engineers.
The bridge would extend from southwest Tupelo near Eason Boulevard, intersect Crosstown, and end at Joyner Avenue in the northwest.
It would cost an estimated $407 million but would save Tupelo more than $800 million by 2030 by eliminating the need to stop traffic for each train, according to the study.
But the mayor and some City Council members have publicly questioned the feasibility and aesthetics of an 18-foot-high rail bridge slicing through the city. They said they might not support pursuing that option.
Just because that option is selected, however, doesn’t mean the city must implement every aspect of it.
The city can choose to move the switching yard but leave the tracks on the ground, for example, Thurman said. Or it can handle the improvements in phases.
The public will have 45 days to comment on the revised EIS, and Thurman said those comments will be incorporated into a final EIS that will be sent to the Federal Railroad Administration for its approval.
Approval is anticipated, and it will mark the end of the study that began in 2005.

Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or emily.lecoz@djournal.com.