Officials continue efforts to develop evacuation route

Published 5:00 am Monday, May 7, 2007

Support among Mississippi and Louisiana communities for anevacuation corridor through Lawrence County continues to grow, buttangible evidence of that growth is difficult to see, officialssaid.

Officials from Crystal Springs south to New Orleans are bandingtogether to promote a project that would four-lane MississippiHighway 27 from Crystal Springs to the state line, where it becomesLouisiana Highway 25 and continues south to the New Orleansarea.

The project would serve as an evacuation corridor for residentsof southern Louisiana while boosting economic opportunities inSouthwest Mississippi, said Monticello Mayor David Nichols.

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“Yes, we want to help our neighbors to the south in times ofdire emergency, but it also creates economic opportunities forindustrial growth in Southwest Mississippi,” he said.

Nichols and other officials along the route have touted thebenefits to the expanded corridor for several years and haveenjoyed some success.

“Both states have already designated it as an evacuation route,”Nichols said.

However, the project would require a substantial amount offunding, and that milestone is one that has eluded those in favorof the project.

The Mississippi delegation to the U.S. Congress has activelypromoted the project, Nichols said, but has suffered somesetbacks.

Third District U.S. Rep. Chip Pickering spearheaded a campaignthat succeeded in securing $500,000 in a transportation bill-passed by the House in 2004 – to begin feasibility studies. Butthe funding was removed when the bill was defeated in the Senateand went to conference committee.

The 2004 transportation bill was the closest the Mississippiportion of the project had been to securing funding, Nicholssaid.

However, Congress approved $400,000 for route selection andenvironmental studies on Louisiana’s Highway 25 two years ago, hesaid. That funding, the mayor said, indicates the project isbeginning to get wider support at the federal level.

“We need Congress to understand it’s a two-state project thatbenefits millions of people, as evidenced by Hurricane Katrina,”the mayor said.

Nichols, members of the Walthall and Copiah county boards ofsupervisors and municipal officials in those counties, as well asrepresentatives from the Mississippi Department of Transportation,will join District 39 Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith and District 91 Rep.Joey Hudson in Washington in July to host a congressional breakfastseeking further funding for the project.

The groundwork, Nichols said, has already been laid.

In Mississippi, a project to four-lane Highway 27 from CrystalSprings to Vicksburg was funded through the state’s 1987 MovingAhead transportation program. Work on that portion of the highwayhas already begun.

In addition, the project was included in Mississippi’s Vision 21transportation program and assigned mid-level importance.

Federal funding for the project would move it up the Vision 21project list, Nichols said.

“We’re not asking the federal government to fully fund this,” hesaid. “Whatever we obtain would just speed up MDOT’s process.”