Existing contracts for a long-awaited, $130-million State Route 16 bypass project in Neshoba County were terminated during a meeting of the Mississippi Transportation Commission on Tuesday. Legislators now fear the move will stall development in the area.
Better known as the Philadelphia Bypass, from State Route 15 to State Route 19, the project was developed to direct commercial vehicle traffic away from downtown Philadelphia.
“The decision to postpone the Philadelphia Bypass project came after much discussion on moving forward with a new highway while the state has deteriorating roads and bridges that need immediate attention,” said Central District Commissioner Dick Hall. “The bottom line is the state does not have adequate funding available to continue to move forward with this project while state-owned roads and bridges are continuing to deteriorate faster than they can be repaired.”
The terminated contracts were for preparation of acquisition maps and deeds, providing right of way staking and updating the topographic map for the Philadelphia Bypass, all part of the pre-construction phase.
For Rep. C. Scott Bounds, R-Philadelphia, the news was “disheartening.” The bypass project has been discussed in the community for the past 25 years, and $250 million in private and public sector investments have been made in that area in the past two years .
“I’m really disappointment from the standpoint of the investment that’s been made here and the pledges that have been made here through the years that we’re going to get this project done. It’s the number one priority here in the central transportation district, and we’re at another delay,” Bounds said in a phone interview to Mississippi Today.
“It may be that in the (Mississippi Department of Transportation’s) appropriations bill, we may need to spell out where the money goes,” said Bounds. “If you look at House Bill 2, which was passed in the first extraordinary session this year, we gave them lump sum authority of $1.2 billion, but then on down in the appropriation we spelled out dollars for constructions, and dollars for maintenance, and dollars for debt services and dollars for law enforcement.
“Maybe the Legislature needs to be more specific on where the taxpayer dollars are spent.”
Sen. Jenifer Branning, R-Philadelphia, told Mississippi Today in a phone interview that halting construction of the bypass could have an impact on potential future investments in the area because many investors were looking for this project to be completed first.
“For so long, there’s been talks of the bypass and plans were finalized back in the spring of 2015, and so as a community, we felt like we were finally getting somewhere,” said Branning. “Development has been happening, but there are many more projects that were anticipating and waiting on the right-of-way to be purchased and different things to happen.”
Bounds acknowledged the need for dollars for road and bridge maintenance, but he doesn’t believe there iss an appetite from raising the gas taxes.
“I will say that I thought the House had a good proposal (during the 2017 legislative session) where we were going to take existing dollars that were being voluntarily collected and submitted by online retailers and splitting that money up: 50 percent to MDOT, 25 percent to the counties and 25 percent to the cities,” said Bounds.
“I thought that was a good proposal, but it didn’t float, so we’re back at square one,” he said.
Branning thinks MDOT’s spending should be questioned.
“Are they being fiscally responsible with the taxpayers’ dollars within their budget? Because they don’t have a line-item budget, like many other agencies,” said Branning. “I think instead of asking what can we do to prevent a project cancellation, the more appropriate question is how is MDOT being wise about spending the dollars they are appropriated.”
The contracts for the Philadelphia Bypass project will officially be terminated in early September.