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MDOT U.S. Hwy. 11 meeting in Hattiesburg open to public, press

Southern District Transportation Commissioner Tom King on Wednesday said a meeting to iron out problems surrounding the proposal to expand U.S. Highway 11 North to four lanes and refurbishing it through North Picayune will be open to the public and press.

The meeting is scheduled to be held at the District 6 Highway Commission auditorium at 9 a.m. Friday. The Highway Commission office is located at 6356 U.S. Highway 49 North in Hattiesburg.

“Yes, certainly, it is an open meeting. The mayor of Picayune (Ed Pinero, Jr.) is planning to be there and the five supervisors,” said King from his Hattiesburg office. “We are going to answer some of the rumors that are circulating about this project.”

In addition, some Picayune businessmen had asked whether it would be an open meeting because, they said, they wanted to attend.

There was some question late last week about whether it would be open to public and press. One source said it was a planning session for engineers, and he was not sure whether it would be open or not, but King dispelled that Wednesday afternoon in an interview with the Item.

“Of course, it is open. The public and business people from Picayune and those who will be impacted by the project are welcome to come,” said King.

King, the former head of the Senate Transportation Committee, ran for Southern District transportation commissioner last November and won. He served in the State Legislature for 20 years. He campaigned on the platform that the Mississippi Department of Transportation, governed by the transportation commission, was made up of great employees and that there was only a communication problem between MDOT and local officials. He promised to remedy that.

The U.S. Hwy. 11 issue is probably one of the first big issues to land in his lap. His first few months in office have been low-key and quiet. The U.S. Hwy. 11 project, which is estimated to cost between $10 million and $12 million, took center stage last week when county engineer Les Dungan told supervisors that MDOT officials had told him that the project was going to be delayed.

Although local officials were reluctant to talk on the record, as a background briefing one well-placed official said that some promises were made about the U.S. Hwy. 11 project. The federal highway was to be upgraded by the state in conjunction with construction of the new Highland Community Hospital off of the highway and with the construction of a new road, Highland Commons, by the county from Exit 6 on Interstate 10 to U.S. Hwy. 11 to provide access to the hospital. If there was any delay, that would represent a broken promise, the official said.

Dungan’s mention of a delay in a supervisors’ briefing on April 2 immediately caught supervisors’ and Picayune officials’ attention. The $55 million Highland Community Hospital is scheduled to open in July. That will increase traffic flow problems already associated with that U.S. Hwy. 11 North stretch since explosive growth in and around Picayune, especially following Hurricane Katrina. The stretch of highway suffers from gridlock Monday through Friday at the traffic signal at the intersection of Mississippi Highway 43 and U.S. Hwy. 11 in North Picayune.

The new hospital will be located near the corner of Highland Commons Parkway and U.S. Hwy. 11 North. Access and egress to the 128,000 sq. ft. hospital is off of the highway.

The proposed upgrading would stretch from East Hobolochitto Creek bridge to the entrance to Hide-A-Way Lake. Sometimes the back up on that short stretch, north or south, can stretch for a mile. The highway right now is three lanes, one north, one south with a turning lane, often called a “suicide lane,” separating the two. The planned reworking calls for the highway to be made four lanes with a raised grass median with turning lanes.

When Dungan told supervisors that a meeting was scheduled to discuss the proposed delay, the issue immediately took center stage in Pearl River County, where the backups are the main traffic headache for local officials in Picayune and Pearl River County.

Some Picayune officials said that if the project is “shelved” by MDOT, they were afraid it might be years before it will be built.

MDOT in August, 2010, held a public hearing on the project at Crosby Library and told about 200 people attending it that bids on the road would probably be taken in January 2013 and work begin that Spring.

By last week, evidently things changed, and Dungan said MDOT told him it would be delayed because of “budget restrictions.”

Last Friday Dungan told the Item, “We need to meet with them (MDOT) and get a concrete plan with hard dates in it, as to when things are going to happen. That’s our goal, and that’s what we are working towards. We are going to get that nailed down during (this) Friday(’s) meeting. . .It (U.S. Hwy. 11) is definitely a major problem right now; it won’t work like it is.”

Earlier this week, Realtor James Fleming said he backed the immediate upgrading of U.S. Hwy. 11. He said the congestion was affecting his business, which is located on the highway. “The traffic is a mess,” he said.