By Emily LeCoz/NEMS Daily Journal
“We’re a regional hub whether you like it or not, and because of that you’ve got to move traffic,” said longtime MTP committee member Chuck Imbler Jr.
At that time, Tupelo had been steadily growing. It took on an additional 6,700 residents between 1980 and 1990 – an increase of 28 percent – not to mention the surge in commercial development.
But its network of mostly two-lane roads hadn’t changed much over the years, and the extra traffic load threatened to choke the community.
The city needed to widen its roads and intersections. But an undertaking that vast would take serious money – millions of dollars – and the general fund budget couldn’t support it.
City leaders got together then and hatched a plan. Under then-Mayor Jack Marshall, the Board of Aldermen formed a committee to compile a list of major thoroughfare needs – both long and short term – that eventually totaled $96 million.
From that list, Marshall and the aldermen set priorities and established a funding plan. They’d pay for the work, they decided, through a 10-mill property tax levy tacked onto the city’s existing 19.97 mills.
The group also decided to appoint an oversight committee to manage the program, which would handle only major capital road improvements and not minor work, such as street repaving.
Then they put it to a vote.
On Sept. 10 of that year, 56.5 percent of Tupelo voters approved that plan, named the Major Thoroughfare Program. It would last five years, long enough to implement the first phase of road priorities.
The tax amounts to $1 for every thousand dollars of assessed property. Somebody with a $100,000 house, for example, pays $100 annually for the program along with regular property taxes. The money is collected each tax season, from December to early February, and deposited into a special account.
The first five-year phase raised $10.3 million in local taxes. An additional $5.6 million came from other sources, such as bond proceeds, interest earned and state and federal grants.
It widened and put turn lanes at several intersections throughout the city, including on Cliff Gookin Boulevard, Eason Boulevard, Coley Road, Jackson Street, Main Street and Gloster Street. It widened parts of North and South Gloster Street.
It was so successful that by the next election in 1996, more than 78 percent of voters chose to extend the program an additional five years.
The second phase raised $13.7 million from the special tax levy with an additional $4.4 million from other sources. It widened large segments and North Gloster and Main Streets.
Again, voters overwhelming supported an additional phase in the 2001 election, and Phase 3 was launched. It raised $18.2 million in taxes with $4 million from other sources. It widened a large segment of McCullough Boulevard, and widened the Coley Road-Eason Boulevard- Cliff Gookin Boulevard loop around the southern and western parts of the city.
“I think traffic flow and economic development are the two biggest things that have come out of it,” Imbler said.
New commercial development along MTP-improved streets within one to five years after each phase totals more than $41 million in value, according to records at the city’s Development Services Department.
“It also increases safety because you’re able to move. Like on McCullough Boulevard, that was one of the most dangerous streets because it was 55 mph and four lanes. Someone would flip on their blinker to turn and someone would have to whip around you.”
Thanks to the MTP, McCullough Boulevard has larger intersections with right-hand turn lanes as well as a middle turn lane where vehicles can safety exit the traffic flow while waiting to go left.
The current phase has raised $20.5 million in taxes with $3.3 million in other funds. Some of that money built a new bridge on Eason Boulevard over Town Creek. But most is going to the northern loop, a new road that will connect west Tupelo to the Barnes Crossing shopping district.
It’s the first time the MTP committee has built a new road, and it has been a long and arduous process of red tape and multi-agency coordination. Now almost five years into the current phase, the road isn’t even halfway complete. It still lacks several segments, including an interchange at U.S. highway 78 and a bridge over the Natchez Trace Parkway.
But when it’s done, it will alleviate traffic congestion near the mall by opening another artery for vehicles to come and go.
“People know the area of the mall and they know the congestion and that we need to alleviate congestion,” said committee Chairman Greg Pirkle. “This has been a very public process. They understand how much red tape, how much cooperation is needed from the federal, state and city governments. It has educated the public on exactly what is involved in building a new road.”
Pirkle heads the Major Thoroughfare Oversight Committee, an 18-member group made up of volunteer citizens appointed by the mayor and approved by the City Council.
Members meet monthly with a project manager, head engineers and the city’s finance department, to monitor the program’s implementation and plan additional work.
The current phase ends when tax collections stop later this year. In all, the MTP will have raised $62.8 million in local taxes and completed $90.6 million worth of road work during its 20-year span.
Voters will decide May 3 whether to extend the program into another five-year phase. If they do, the committee has a new series of projects: widening South Gloster, East Main and Jackson streets, as well as Eason and Veterans boulevards.
It also wants to put right-hand turn lanes along North Gloster Street near the mall, and build an interchange where the new state Highway 6 will cross South Thomas Street, which it also will widen.
If voters don’t approve, the program will stop and those projects will get shelved.
“The greatest obstacle we try to overcome is to make sure we’re providing thoroughfares that will benefit the majority of the people,” Pirkle said. “We strive to make sure we’re benefiting all of Tupelo and not just one part of Tupelo. That is difficult for us because sometimes the critical need is centered in one part of town and others have not necessarily gotten their fair share.”