We can improve an existing north-south corridor now instead of later.

Here is the text of a guest column that appears in the current issue of The
Journal of South Mssissippi Business.

By A.J. Holloway

Everyone, I believe, agrees that having adequate and efficient roads to carry
an ever-increasing amount of traffic is more of an issue now than at any
other time in our history.

Unfortunately, everyone has probably come to the realization that for all
the talk about the pressing need for new and wider north-south corridors,
we won’t
see these projects anytime soon.

The challenges are the same ones you hear on most major issues: who’s
going to pay for it, where’s it going to be built and when will it be
built. You don’t see a lot of people stepping forward to answer the
first question, you see a long line of people with many ideas on the second
question,
and no one has come forward with an answer to the third question.

But I believe that we can improve an existing north-south corridor to meet
our immediate needs. And we can do it within years not decades.

A bad situation that will get worse

The fact is, we’ve
seen the amount of traffic on our roadways double or triple in some cases,
and projections are
that the increase will continue,
fueled by the growth of our community and the number of visitors we see every
year.
Another fact is that Biloxi today is limited to two primary north-south emergency
evacuation routes – the aging and low-level two-lane Popp’s Ferry
bridge and the I-110 high rise over Back Bay.

The I-110 bridge currently carries an average of
more than 53,000 vehicles a day, and MDOT projects that we’ll see that
figure balloon over the next decade or so. At the same time, MDOT admits that
it may be at least 10
to 15 years before work even begins on a third viable north-south corridor
to serve Biloxi. Cost has been estimated at $300 million, with no funding sources
identified, and some questioning whether this issue is even a priority with
MDOT.

The fact is that the I-110 bridge will be at or exceeding
its capacity by the time work begins on a new north-south corridor.

The existing Popp’s Ferry bridge leaves no room for error. It’s
a bad situation that could become a crisis in time of emergency. On an average
day, almost 20,000 vehicles cross the two-lane Popp’s Ferry bridge, the
main north-south artery in west Biloxi.

Traffic comes to a standstill an average of 10 times
a day when the drawbridge is raised for marine traffic. Records show that the
draw was raised 23 times
in one 24-hour period, on the eve of Tropical Storm Isidore, to allow boats
to move up river to safe harbors, while at the same time an increasing number
of motorists were trying to cross the bridge.

Those 23 openings were for extended periods since
more than 345 vessels passed through the raised draw during the pre-Isidore
evacuation. All the while,
motorists were stalled on the bridge, and the situation could have become
even worse
had one of the dozens of marine vessels navigating the low and narrow draw
struck the bridge during this period.

The big picture

On any given day, Biloxi may have as many as
300,000 people within its boundaries, with many concentrated on the peninsula
itself. Since 1901, we’ve
been victimized by 10 hurricanes, and eight of the 10 were direct hits.
Authorities say that it’s likely that more than 108,000 vehicles
would be evacuated during the most severe hurricane conditions.

Instead of waiting for that crisis to arrive,
we can take steps now to build a new, higher bridge at Popp’s Ferry
that would serve our needs until whenever serious work begins on a third
north-south corridor.

Initial engineering estimates put the price
tag in the $50 million price range. Concepts include building a twin span
alongside the current bridge,
with an
eye to a more elevated draw to reduce the number of openings each day.
The span on the current bridge could then be elevated to the same height,
and
we’d
have twin spans offering a total of four lanes of traffic. Another
option is to build a totally new, four-lane bridge. at a higher elevation.

Working with our congressional delegation,
we’ve been successful in having
money set aside for the environmental work toward helping decide the best option.
But the bill that includes that money is awaiting President Bush’s
signature.

Moving forward on this project is an urgent,
life-safety issue that can be dealt with now instead of later.

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