PORT GIBSON – More than three decades after the historic 1987 four-lane highway program was enacted, one tiny project – about seven miles through equally historic Port Gibson – remains to be finished – or even started for that matter.
There have been multiple efforts – at least nine – to begin the project, but they have been met with road blocks, ranging from a Civil War battlefield to the Natchez Trace Parkway to flooding concerns to the beauty and history of Port Gibson itself.
It is only fitting that the history and beauty of this Claiborne County seat in southwest Mississippi would be a factor in building a highway through the town that Union Gen. U.S. Grant reportedly called “too pretty to burn” during the Civil War.
“This has been a long process with a lot of issues. This place is surrounded in history – a lot of history,” Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall said recently standing outside of Market Street in downtown Port Gibson where the latest proposal was unveiled. “We have tried to find a route to get past all of those problems. I think this one will fly.”
The latest project would begin just north of town on the existing U.S. Highway 61 roadway, but veer east of town, crossing the Natchez Trace Parkway and reconnect with existing 61 south of town. The project would avoid the land where the pivotal Battle of Port Gibson was fought and where the Grand Gulf Military State Park is located west of town and, perhaps more importantly, would bypass the picturesque current Highway 61 that goes through the heart of Port Gibson surrounded by old homes, big old trees and historic and architecturally significant churches. On the southern edge of town along Highway 61 is the now closed Chamberlain Hunt Academy, a former boarding school that contains buildings located on the National Historic Register.
Johnny Carpenter, a retired Port Gibson resident, sitting up against wall, after looking at many of the tables the Mississippi Department of Transportation had set up in the Market Street building to explain the project to the locals, said, “I just want to get it done and over with.” He said he does not have a preference.
“Whatever they decide, let’s get it done,” he said
Even though the four-laning of that section of Highway 61 was in the third or final phase of the 1987 project, the people of Port Gibson still have been waiting an especially long time.
The rest of the about 1,080 miles of four-lane highways built through the 1987 program were completed in 2012 with the expansion of a section of U.S. Highway 84 from Waynesboro to the Alabama state line in August and a four-lane section of state Highway 57 in Greene County to the Alabama State line in February.
The 1987 program, Advocating Highways for Economic Advancement and Development (AHEAD), has been hailed as one of the most significant pieces of legislation passed by the Mississippi Legislature in modern times. Its estimated cost in 1987 was $1.6 billion and was financed with revenue from the 18.4 cents per gallon tax on motor fuel and from other user fees.
“It really showed the forward thinking of the supporters to develop essentially a state highway system,” said Scott Waller, the chief executive officer of the Mississippi Economic Council. “There is no question from an economic standpoint the importance of the system – a four-lane about 30 minutes from every home. And from a safety standpoint it was important too.”
Hall said one of his first meetings he attended as transportation commissioner was to unveil a proposal for the Port Gibson project in 1999.
Hall, who will retire at the end of this year, recently was doing the same on a warm and sunny spring afternoon in southwest Mississippi.
Projects to bypass the town to the west have been met with opposition because of the key Civil War battlefields in the area – the Battle of Port Gibson and Battle of Grand Gulf – and because there were concerns of the project causing enhanced flooding primarily from the Little Bayou Pierre, which snakes through the northern end of Port Gibson, and from the Mississippi River. To the east, officials had to make sure the U.S. Department of the Interior would not object to the plan because of how it would impact the Natchez Trace Parkway. State officials believe the current plan accommodates the Natchez Trace.
The biggest uproar, according to many, occurred in 2008 when then-Transportation Department Executive Director Butch Brown, hired by the three member Commission, supported running the four-lane project straight through Port Gibson along the existing roadway.
“That will occur over my dead body,” Hall told some people at the recent public meeting.
While that stretch of U.S. 61 running through the heart of Port Gibson already is four lanes, Kevin Magee, the district engineer, said the new roadway would have to be wider to meet federal specifications and would destroy some of the famous trees and would negatively impact the area’s general aesthetics, which include the gold finger pointing to the heavens on the steeple of Port Gibson First Presbyterian Church.
Magee, like Hall, believes the current plan is a keeper and will finally solve the puzzle of competing Highway 61 through southwest Mississippi. They sought community input, Magee said, before unveiling the plan.
When asked how could he tell if the plan had the support of most of the residents, he said, “If you had been here in 2008 you would know what it was like when a plan was not supported.”
Of course, at the recent meeting there were those who did support running the new highway straight through town.
“It has been 100 years since a home was built on Church Street (Highway 61 through town.) People who live in those houses chose to live on a major highway,” said Betsy Lipscomb, a retired veterinarian.
There are people who wonder what will happen to Port Gibson if the highway bypasses it. Doug Nasif, owner of M&M Super Store on the corner of Church and Market streets, says he would prefer to have a separate trucking route to bypass the town and an improved 61 through town.
“It has been a long time,” he said. “Let’s see what happens.”
Port Gibson Mayor Fred Reeves, who supports the latest plan, says, “I call it an expressway, not a bypass.”
He said the plan will help Port Gibson in the short run just by the large cost of the project – around $130 million, including a tourist friendly pedestrian/bike route off the Natchez Trace – compared to $7 million cost of coming straight down Church Street. He said such a financial undertaking will be a boon for the Port Gibson economy.
“My job is to grow the economy of Port Gibson,” said Reeves, who came into office in 2008 during the midst of the debate about going straight through town. He opposed that effort, he said.
“When the project is complete, that will give us an opportunity to expand” into the areas where the new highway goes, he said. “We can’t expand out there now.”
Al Hollingsworth, whose in-laws were the Schaifers from the historic home west of town where Union soldiers headquartered on their assault on Port Gibson and who knows all about the Civil War history of the area, said the current plan makes sense. The new highway will be to the east of town and people traveling to the historic areas west of town will have to go through Port Gibson, which is in the middle.
Despite its history and beauty, Port Gibson, a town of less than 1,600 – based on the 2010 census, has struggled economically for some time as has Claiborne County. Claiborne, with a population of less than 10,000, is more than 80 percent African American and more than 30 percent of its residents live below the poverty line.
“Hopefully, the new road will help the county and the area grow and move more traffic into the area,” said Milton Chambliss, an economic developer for the county.
District Engineer Magee was reluctant to estimate on a time frame to complete the long-awaited project, saying there were multiple steps in a process that is just beginning.
The residents of Port Gibson, one of the state’s oldest cities, are used to waiting.