Walnut citizens ponder highway reconstruction

By Kedrick Storey/Southern Sentinel

WALNUT – Monday, the sweltering heat outside, nor the heat inside a snug Walnut Community Center, could keep upwards of 100 Walnut citizens from attending an Open Forum Public Meeting to discuss reconstruction plans for State Route 15 from Walnut to the Tennessee state line.

Called by the Mississippi Department of Transportation, attendees in a come-and-go setting, examined three different aerial map designs or “alternatives”–according to an MDOT handout–and were asked to express concerns about design, right-of-way and environmental issues of the project.

Four different “alternatives”, one for no change except for routine maintenance, two for widening Hwy. 15 to a four-lane and one to bypass Walnut to west with a divided four-lane lay sprawled on tables with pin-pointing and chatter surrounding each one, some more than others.

The overall feel of the room was that a four-lane would be beneficial to Walnut.

“I think it’s a good thing… To spur economic growth,” said long-time Walnut native and Thyssen Krupp employee Butch Hill. He along with his brother Jerry Hill, a Caterpillar retiree, were born and raised in Walnut and see the reconstruction as a plus for their hometown.

“It will take some land, but whatever is the safest route, the least expensive and brings a lot of businesses will be the best way to go,” added Jerry.

While most are in tune with the basic reconstruction, some differ on how that should go about, as in who should give up land and how much land should they give up.

Carol Smith, a homeowner on the east side of Walnut–the main part of the one of the more favorable plans–expressed her concerns at the forum. She said the proposals have changed drastically since 2001 and will cause her to lose her newly renovated house.

“When they first started talking about this, they assured us they were only going to need a lane and a half on either side of the highway and we could live with that,” said Smith a homeowner for 35 years. “Now, we’ve made a big addition to our house, we waited all these years, and now it will take our whole house.”

First Dist. Sup. Jimmy Gunn said he just hopes to see the project completed to help the not just Walnut, but Tippah County as a whole.

“This four-lane is important for all of Tippah County, not just Walnut,” said Gunn. “Connecting Highway 72 and 78 will give access all the way through the county for future growth. It will be a lot more enticing for business to come here because of the transportation route.

According to the brochure, the entire project is part of Phase IV of the 1987 Four-Lane Highway Program. The Vision 21 Program made the reconstruction a priority in 2001 giving the proposed four-lining an top priority.

Some of the purposes outlined in the brochure include:

- Improve safety for travelers throughout the area;

- Address existing and future traffic needs;

- Correct geometric deficiencies; and

- Fulfill the legislative mandate to develop four-lane highways within the state as defined in the 1987 Four-Lane Highways Program and the 2005 Vision 21; a four line highway within 30 miles of every Mississippian.

Although there is some difference which angle will be the best for the project, Adam Johnson, a Location Engineer with MDOT says that Open Forums are vital to the success. He said the community knows know about their local area than anybody else.

“It’s extremely important. There are things they hold dear to themselves and their community that we don’t know about,” added Johnson. “There may be a small family cemetery or plans to build a park that we won’t know about, unless we come and talk to them.

“When you build a road like this, you’re not only building for today, but for 10, 15, 30 years down the road. So we want to build for what the city has in mind down the road.”

Further studies will be conducted and the findings will be presented at a public hearing in early 2012 and a preferred alternative will be selected according to MDOT.

For more information, contact the Environmental Division of the Mississippi Department of Transportation at 601-359-7920 or email environmentalcomments@mdot.state.ms.us.