TUPELO – The City Council is split over an airport runway project that will force West Jackson Street Extended to change course or tunnel underground.
It appeared Monday the Tupelo Airport Authority also has its doubts.
“The Airport Authority needs to revisit this thing starting tomorrow and come to some conclusion among ourselves, and there is some disagreement among ourselves,” said authority member Bo Gibens. “This needs to be slowed a little bit until we come to a consensus ourselves and get a plan.”
Gibens made his remarks during a one-hour meeting Monday between the authority and the council at City Hall. The groups discussed the airport’s runway project and its implications for the major east-west corridor.
The $9.3 million project will expand the runway to between 7,500-8,000 feet so it can better compete with nearby airports. Federal dollars will pay for 95 percent of it if the airport can get the city’s support.
But because Jackson Extended already lies within the runway projection zone – a restricted area surrounding the runway – the street must move before the government will pay.
Though both sides expressed a desire to reach consensus, a division was apparent from the start: Most airport officials want to reroute Jackson Extended; most council members want a tunnel so the street stays its current course.
And some council members said if they don’t get the tunnel, they won’t support the runway project. Period.
“I’d like to … make the tunnel our No. 1 priority,” said Ward 6 Councilman Mike Bryan. “And if the tunnel is off the page, I cannot support it.”
Bryan and his colleagues said their constituents strongly oppose rerouting Jackson Extended. That plan will take the street off its current path – where it exits onto Coley Road – and veer it north through Colonial Estates so it exits onto McCullough Boulevard.
“I have found very few, if any, who are in support of the Colonial Estates route,” said Ward 3 Councilman Jim Newell. “That will have a major impact on how I’m going to vote.”
Newell and Bryan said they’d consider rescinding a previous council resolution that permits the airport to reroute Jackson Extended. If that happens, it could jeopardize the entire project.
The Federal Aviation Administration “would then say, ‘Let’s start all over again on the entire project,'” according to airport Executive Director Terry Anderson. “It would take four to five years for us to get there, and it would be a new council and a new mayor possibly at that time.”
Anderson said the FAA already gave initial approval to the rerouting option, as did the Chickasaw Nation, which has sites that would be affected. He doubted the nation would so easily agree to the tunneling.
If that’s the case, said council President Fred Pitts, the airport should produce a letter from the Chickasaw Nation saying so.
“In order to serve our community,” he said, “we’ve got to get these answers.”
Ward 4 Councilwoman Nettie Davis said she prefers the tunnel but will support the extension either way, calling the project a sign of progress.
Airport authority members are set to meet again today; the council meets next on Nov. 16.
“I would hope that whatever happens that people don’t look at this as a one-issue thing, that people are either for the airport or against the airport,” said Mayor Jack Reed Jr., who also attended the work session. “Whatever happens on this is not going to make or break … the airport’s success.”
Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal