Meeting on $10 million Hwy. 11 overhaul changed to Friday

Published 9:39 pm Saturday, April 7, 2012

A Tuesday meeting between Pearl River County officials and Mississippi Dept. of Transportation officials at MDOT’s Hattiesburg district office has been pushed back to Friday.

The meeting, set to iron out problems generated when MDOT said it would delay a $10 million upgrading and refurbishing of U.S. Highway 11 North through Picayune, has been changed to Friday so Southern District Highway Commissioner Tom King can attend, said Pearl River County Engineer Les Dungan.

News last week came that MDOT had shelved the $10 million project that would help solve Picayune and Pearl River County’s biggest traffic headache.

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The U.S. Hwy. 11 project delay is a major issue for King, one of three elected members of the Mississippi Transportation Commission, who run MDOT. King is the former head of the Mississippi Senate Transportation Committee who won election last November to the highway commission by campaigning on a promise of renewing communication between MDOT and local officials.

The U.S. Hwy. 11 project’s importance to him was evident in the fact that he told officials he wanted to sit in on the session and wanted it postponed to Friday so he could attend. He had a conflict with the Tuesday meeting.

Anyone familiar with the U.S. Hwy. 11 problems know that almost daily traffic grinds to a slow, shuffling gait as vehicles overload the highway and the traffic signal at the intersection of Mississippi Highway 43 and U.S. Hwy. 11. The completion and opening of Highland Community Hospital’s $50 million facility at Highland Commons and U.S. Hwy. 11 will make matters even worse. The $10 million project was supposed to rectify that.

Dungan’s announcement on Monday at a board of supervisors meeting in Poplarville that MDOT had delayed, or was going to delay, the $10 million project because of what MDOT officials called “budget restrictions,” alarmed county and Picayune officials, who said the traffic situation on U.S. Hwy. 11 North is becoming intolerable already, and further delay in refurbishing the route will make matters worse.

MDOT originally proposed reworking U.S. Hwy. 11 North, from the East Hobolochitto Creek bridge to the entrance to Hide-A-Way Lake, into a four-lane highway with a raised grass median with turning lanes. All the side road entrances to the highway also would be reworked. Currently, the highway is three lanes, one north, one south, with a turning lane, sometimes called a “suicide lane,” between them.

The $10 million project was being constructed in conjunction with the Highland Community Hospital installation. The hospital costs $50 million.

MDOT held a hearing in August, 2010, at the Crosby Library, and the money and planning seemed available for the project, and MDOT officials told local residents attending the public hearing that bids would probably be let in January, 2013, and work commence in Spring, 2013. Shortly after the August, 2010 hearing, survey crews began work on the project.

An MDOT brochure handed out at the hearing said, “. . .the re-evaluation study area indicates that there is a need for improved safety, mobility and sufficient traffic demand to warrant the four-lane reconstruction of U.S. 11.”

Something has changed since then, and MDOT passed along the news to Dungan, and he passed it on to the supervisors.

While local officials said they would prefer the U.S. Hwy. 11 project to be done even quicker than was proposed, they said at the time of the public hearing they could live with MDOT’s time table even though the $50 million Highland Community Hospital project was scheduled to be completed in Summer, 2012, and would increase the amount of traffic and congestion along U.S. Hwy. 11 North.

Dungan said he did not know whether or not the Friday meeting will be open to the press and public. He said it was more of an internal planning session, and would probably not be opened.

It was not clear by the end of the week whether or not MDOT’s decision to delay the project had been made, and whether or not it could be reversed.

County and Picayune officials were trying to at least salvage the installation of a signal light at Highland Commons Parkway and U.S. Hwy. 11 North.

Picayune officials said the traffic situation on U.S. Hwy. 11 North would be almost intolerable without a light at that intersection, and even worse if the highway is not made four lane.

The location of Highland Community Hospital in North Picayune is likely to change shopping and traffic patterns within the city. The change in the traffic flow and configuration for North Picayune is major, city officials said.

Shopping outlets and restaurants eventually will be located near the hospital complex.

Supervisor Sandy Kane Smith, who said that delaying the project would cause major traffic tie ups and grid lock on the highway, told Dungan he wanted to attend the meeting with MDOT officials. “If I can’t get in, I will stand outside the door,” he told Dungan.

On Friday Dungan said, “We need to meet with them 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 the Friday meeting. . . It ( U.S. Hwy. 11) is  definitely a major problem right now; it won’t work like it is.”

Dungan told supervisors about the delay at the Monday board meeting in a matter-of-fact, off-hand manner as he gave the board a routine update on road-and-bridge projects going on or planned in the county. However, when he announced a possible delay in the highway project, the room fell silent and supervisors immediately fired questions about the signal light and the finality of the decision.

Right now, traffic delays and grid lock can occur on both the northbound and southbound lanes of the highway. On the northbound side, traffic can pile up as far back into town from the U.S. Hwy. 11 and Miss. Hwy. 43 traffic signal to the old Ward’s at Carroll Street.

On the southbound side, traffic backs up as far as the K&T quick stop, which is north of the Highland Commons Parkway and U.S. Hwy. 11 intersection where the new hospital is located. If Highland Commons was open now, it would be blocked when the southbound lane is backed up.

Highland Commons will funnel traffic from Exit 6 on Interstate 59 to U.S. Hwy. 11 North near K&T. It could develop into a major traffic bypass for traffic headed north on U.S. Hwy. 11.

The four-laning of the highway was supposed to be a major cog in the process of redoing the traffic flow in North Picayune once the hospital was open.