/Port Gibson Decades-long wait for historic 1987 highway program’s completion may be near

Port Gibson Decades-long wait for historic 1987 highway program’s completion may be near

Multiple attempts have been made to start the project – at most nine – but they have met with roadblocks, from the Civil War battlefield to Natchez Trace Parkway flooding concerns to Port Gibson’s beauty and history. It’s only right that the beauty and history of the Claiborne County seat in southwest Mississippi should be a factor when building a highway through this town, which Union Gen. U.S. Grant reportedly described as “too pretty for burn” during Civil War. This has been a lengthy process that involved many issues. This area is surrounded by history – a lot history,” Dick Hall, Central District Transportation Commissioner, said while standing outside Market Street in downtown Port Gibson, where the latest proposal was revealed. “We tried to find a way to get around all those problems. “I think this one will fly.” This latest project would start just north of the town on the U.S. Highway 61 roadway. It would then veer east, cross the Natchez Trace Parkway, and connect with the existing 61 south. This project would not go through the area where the pivotal Battle of Port Gibson took place. It would also bypass the scenic current Highway 61, which runs through Port Gibson, surrounded by historic homes, large trees, and churches that are architecturally and historically significant. The former boarding school, Chamberlain Hunt Academy is located at the southern end of town on Highway 61. It contains buildings that are listed on the National Historic Register. Johnny Carpenter, a Port Gibson resident who is now a retired man, sits against the wall and looks at the many tables that the Mississippi Department of Transportation has set up in the Market Street Building to explain the project. He stated that he doesn’t have a preference. He said, “Whatever they decide. Let’s get it done.” Even though the four-lane section of Highway 61 was the final phase of the 1987 project the Port Gibson residents have been waiting for this moment for a long time. The remainder of the 1,080 miles (4-lane) of highways constructed under the 1987 program were completed in 2012. These included the extension of a section U.S. Highway 84 in Waynesboro to the Alabama State Line in August, and a section of U.S. Highway 57 in Greene County from the Alabama State Line in February. Advocating Highways for Economic Advancement and Development (AHEAD) was hailed as the most important piece of legislation that the Mississippi Legislature has passed in recent times. The program’s estimated cost was $1.6billion in 1987. It was funded with revenue from the 18.4c per gallon motor fuel tax and other user fees. Scott Waller, chief executive officer of Mississippi Economic Council, stated that the project showed the supporter’s forward-thinking to build essentially a state highway network. The system is important from both an economic and safety standpoint. It has a four-lane highway that runs about 30 minutes from each home. It was also important from a safety perspective.” Hall stated that one of his first meetings as transportation commissioner was to present a plan for the Port Gibson project. This proposal was unveiled in 1999. Hall, who will be retiring at the end this year, was recently doing the same thing on a sunny spring afternoon in southwest Mississippi. The opposition to projects to bypass the town to its west has been due to the Civil War battlefields there – Battle of Port Gibson and Battle of Grand Gulf. There were also concerns about the potential for enhanced flooding from the Little Bayou Pierre which runs through Port Gibson’s northern end, as well as from the Mississippi River. Officials had to check with the U.S. Department of the Interior to ensure that the plan was not blocked because it would have an adverse impact on the Natchez Trace Parkway. Officials from the state believe that the plan currently in place accommodates the Natchez Trace. According to many, the biggest uproar occurred in 2008, when Butch Brown (ex-Executive Director of the Transportation Department), was hired by the three-member Commission and supported running the four-lane project through Port Gibson on the existing road. Hall stated that “that will happen over my dead body” at the recent public meeting. The U.S. 61 that runs through Port Gibson has four lanes. However, Kevin Magee the district engineer stated that the new road would need to be wider to comply with federal specifications. He also said that it would damage some trees and negatively affect the general aesthetics of the area, including the gold finger pointing up to the heavens at the Port Gibson First Presbyterian Church steeple. Magee believes that the current plan, similar to Hall, is a winner and will solve the problem of the competing Highway 61 in southwest Mississippi. Before revealing the plan, Magee stated that they sought community input. Magee was asked how he could tell if the plan was supported by most residents. He replied, “If I had been here in 2008, you would have known what it was like when the plan was rejected.” However, there were also those who supported running the highway through town at the recent meeting. It has been 100 years since a house was built on Church Street (Highway 61 runs through the town). Betsy Lipscomb, an elderly veterinarian, said that those who lived in these houses chose to live near major highways. Many people wonder what Port Gibson will look like if the highway is built around it. Doug Nasif, the owner of M&M Super Store at the corner of Church Street and Market streets, said he would prefer a separate trucking route that bypasses the town as well as an improved Route 61 through the town. He said, “It’s been a long while.” Let’s see what happens. Port Gibson Mayor Fred Reeves supports the latest plan. He stated that the plan will benefit Port Gibson in the short-term due to the high cost of the project, which is approximately $130 million and includes a pedestrian/bike route off of the Natchez Trace. This compares to the $7 million cost of going straight down Church Street. Reeves said that such a large financial commitment will be a boon to the Port Gibson economy. Reeves said, “My job it to grow the Port Gibson economy.” He was elected in 2008 amid the ongoing debate about a direct route through the town. He said he opposed such an effort. He said that “when the project is completed, that will allow us to expand” in the areas where the highway runs. “We cannot expand out there right now.” Al Hollingsworth, whose family included the Schaifers, who lived in the historic house west of town, where Union soldiers were based on their assault on Port Gibson, believes the current plan is sensible. The new highway will run to the east, and those who want to visit the historic areas west will need to travel through Port Gibson. Port Gibson is a small town with fewer than 1,600 inhabitants, according to the 2010 census. It has suffered economic hardships for some time, despite its beauty and history. Claiborne has a population less than 10,000 and is home to more than 80 percent African Americans. More than 30 percent of its residents are below the poverty level. Milton Chambliss is an economic developer for Claiborne. “Hopefully, the road will help county and area grow and move more people into the area,” he said. The District Engineer Magee hesitated to give a timeline for the long-awaited project because there are many steps in a process that is still beginning. Port Gibson is one of the oldest cities in the state.