RIPLEY • Chris Marsalis gets frustrated by the constant questions he gets from people asking him when Highway 15 will be fully four-laned throughout Tippah County – frustrated because the project is out of his hands.

Marsalis, the mayor of Ripley, said the future of economic growth for the town could depend on the completion of the transportation project, but the portion of the road running through the county has been “shovel ready” for several years. That means the project is ready for construction to begin.

“I know of three (businesses) that passed on our initial location because access to a four-lane highway was too far away,” Marsalis told the Daily Journal.

Marsalis said conversations about the project have been ongoing as long as he’s been in office since 2012. He said the Mississippi Department of Transportation has purchased the right of way for the road and utility companies have moved power lines in order for state government to begin construction on the four-lane.

Lack of access to a four-lane highway in the area comes at a critical time for the state. Voters are set to elect two new transportation commissioners and approximately 62 county-owned bridges in Northeast Mississippi have been closed after falling into disrepair.

Chris Lewellan, the executive director for the Tippah County Development Foundation, oversees the organization responsible for encouraging new businesses to come to Tippah county, where Ripley is located. He says the county can’t realistically expect to get a tier-two or tier-three industry to come into the county without access to a four-lane highway.

“This is something that’s long overdue,” Lewellan said. “Tippah County is a diamond in the rough, and that four-lane project would bring that out quite a bit.”

Lewellan said his office has communicated with MDOT officials, members of the state legislature and anyone he can advocating for the project.

“I don’t know anyone in the state legislature who doesn’t know how we feel about Highway 15,” he said.

Lewellan also said if the road were widened into a four-lane highway, it would help the businesses already in the county who rely on the road. One of these businesses is Ashley Furniture, which has two furniture plants in Ripley and one large plant in Ecru.

Ron Wanek, the chairman and founder of Ashley Furniture, said the company has been in Ripley since 1999 and the road needs a lot of work. Wanek said if the road were fully four-laned, it would help his business out a lot.

“Highway 15 is long overdue to be improved,” Wanek said. “It’s hazardous and difficult to get on. It’s challenging and dangerous. During rush hour, there’s bumper-to-bumper traffic.”

Doug Norton is the mayor of Blue Mountain, which is also in Tippah County. He said he has been in some of the development meetings with Lewellan, and most of the industries looking to come to the county want access to a four lane highway in order to transport items.

“In 2009, when MDOT was buying all the property around Blue Mountain, it was my understanding it was going to happen,” Norton said. “Everybody I’ve talked to said they want it four-laned too, but if you don’t have the money, you can’t build it.

For fiscal year 2019, MDOT was appropriated a little over $1 billion by the Mississippi State Legislature. For fiscal year 2020, MDOT requested exactly $1 billion, which is less than the previous year. According to the Mississippi Legislative Budget Office, it is estimated for MDOT to receive a little under $1 billion, following a trend since 2016 of decreasing the number of dollars MDOT receives from the state legislature.

The mayors of Ripley and Blue Mountain both said they don’t blame MDOT for the road project not being completed because MDOT does not have the necessary funds to complete the project.

And money is exactly what MDOT officials say is the problem. The price tag attached to completing the Highway 15 project ranges from $200 to $250 million.

Mike Tagert, the outgoing commissioner of transportation in the northern region of the state, said he sympathizes with the local officials, but he hasn’t moved forward with completing the project because his office simply cannot afford to do so.

“There’s no shortcut. You can’t get blood out of a turnip,” Tagert told the Daily Journal at his Tupelo office. “You’ve got to pay for the system that you want to build and maintain. The obvious way to do that is through a fuel tax increase. That is the fairest, most equitable way in order to do that. Meaning that if you utilize the roads, then you help pay to maintain the roads.”

Tagert explained that there has been a lot of work done to Highway 15 over the course of the decade he’s been in office. He said his office has completed other sections of Highway 15 like the section of the highway from New Albany to the Tippah County line. His office has also purchased the right of way for the road which takes a long time to aquire because MDOT has to negotiate a fair price for the property for taxpayers and the property owner.

“People really want to see a lot of dirt moving, and they don’t. People aren’t recognizing it but we’ve spent a tremendous amount of money, somewhere in the neighborhood of $40 to $45 million, just purchasing the right of way,” Tagert said.

Tagert said there hasn’t been a highway bill to come through the Legislature since 1987, and MDOT has been operating with the same dollars they’ve operated with since 1987.

Even though the Legislature appropriates money for MDOT, the money does not come out of the state’s general fund. The money MDOT receives either comes from assistance from the federal government or comes from money generated from fuel taxes.

Recently, MDOT has been able to find other streams of revenue through fees attached to car tags and, eventually, through the state’s lottery programs that’s expected to happen. Tagert said he’s thankful for the additional funds, but the money MDOT is expected to receive from the lottery is between $75 to $80 million.

“We think that we need an additional $400 million per year in order to build for the future and to maintain the system that’s in place,” Tagert said.

The discussion around Highway 15 also comes right in the middle of the election for a new Northern District transportation commissioner. Currently, there are two Republican candidates vying for the Republican nomination in a runoff election. Democrat Joey Grist will face the Republican nominee in the general election.

Geoffrey Yoste, a defense contractor and a retired U.S. Army officer, has been advocating for the completion of the project along campaign stops throughout the duration of his campaign. Yoste said the road should be given more attention because it’s a hurricane evacuation route.

“We are ready to get that project done,” Yoste said. “It’s going to expand economic opportunity.

Yoste said the incomplete project has been a “strangle-hold” for people in the area.

Yoste’s opponent, former Desoto County Supervisor John Caldwell, said the highway is a microcosm of the state.

“Highway 15 is an important thoroughfare,” Caldwell said. “The people have been told it’s going to be four-laned, and it hasn’t happened.”

Caldwell said it will be difficult to determine how to address the different road needs in the state because everyone thinks the road they drive on is the most important.

“In reality, they’re all important,” Caldwell said.

Many people, such as Tagert, have proposed increasing the state’s gasoline tax, which is currently the fourth-lowest gasoline tax in the nation at 18.4 cents per gallon.

Caldwell has previously said that conversations surrounding the gasoline tax are premature and Yoste said he doesn’t think it would be appropriate for him to try and tell the state legislature how to appropriate and increase funding to the department.

The American Trucking Association has advocated for states to increase their gasoline tax to fund infrastructure projects.

“The budget is not going to change regardless of who’s sitting in the seat,” Tagert said. “They’re going to run into the same financial and fiscal challenges that we’ve run into.”

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