CATEGORY: Tupelo Stories




By Marty Russell

Daily Journal

When Tupelo voters go to the polls in less than two weeks, they will have a simple choice: cut their taxes by 10 mills or leave the existing millage in place with the guarantee that the proceeds will be used to improve two and possibly three of the city's busiest streets.

Voters will decide Aug. 6 whether to continue Tupelo's Major Thoroughfare Program, a pay-as-you-go traffic improvement plan begun five years ago that resulted in improvements at 20 intersections around the city and the widening of Gloster Street from the King's Creek bridge north to the Mississippi Department of Transportation building.

The 10-mill tax voters approved in 1991 was earmarked specifically for the Major Thoroughfare Project and, by law, is due to expire this year. The 10 mills - a mill is $1 for every $1,000 in a property's assessed valuation - brought in between $2 million and $2.5 million a year for road work.

The City Council agreed, at the request of the mayor and the citizens advisory groups formed to oversee the project, to allow voters to decide whether to extend the 10 mills for an additional five years in what would be Phase II of the Major Thoroughfare Program.

Phase II projects

If voters decide Aug. 6 to continue the program, they will be voting to widen only two major thoroughfares over the next five years: West Main Street from Milford Street to Coley Road and North Gloster Street from the Department of Transportation building to the Mall at Barnes Crossing. A third project, widening Cliff Gookin Boulevard from Main Street to the high school, would be undertaken if enough funds remain after the first two projects are completed.

While no vocal opposition to extending the thoroughfare program and the 10-mill tax has surfaced, supporters of the extension worried that putting all of the program's funds into just two projects in a limited area of the city instead of many projects citywide as in Phase I would hurt their efforts to sell Phase II to the voters.

But Jim Collins, chairman of the citizens group charged with coming up with the projects to be included in Phase II, said the committee took several factors into consideration when making its recommendation.

"There were a lot of alternatives," said Collins, chairman of the 20-member PRIDE (Public Roads Improved Development Encouraged) committee.

An engineering firm looked at traffic counts and accident rates throughout Tupelo and came up with a list of 10 projects it deemed the top priorities for the city. The list included the city's busiest thoroughfare, the stretch of Eason Boulevard from Martin Luther King Drive east to Mississippi Highway 6.

But estimates showed it would take about $26.4 million to complete all 10 projects while the 10-mill tax would only bring in about $13.7 million over the five-year life of the program. That meant some projects had to be deleted from the list.

The PRIDE committee met and, after much discussion, narrowed the list to two major projects with the one alternate project should funds remain.

"It was a fairly easy decision for us realizing that, especially on North Gloster Street, we needed to go ahead and do it now or we might not get the assistance of the Highway Department," Collins said.

The Department of Transportation has agreed to widen the series of bridges on North Gloster between its headquarters building and the mall. Without that assistance, the city could not afford to widen that section of North Gloster. With the assistance, the city expects to complete the project for about $3.2 million.

"We felt we ought to go ahead and do that with Barnes Crossing doing what it's doing," Collins said of the development around the mall area. "We need to tie that area into the city."

When the votes were totaled, PRIDE committee members also had chosen to make widening West Main Street one of the Phase II projects.

"With the traffic it carries and the accident rate, it was one of the ones we said if we can do it, we ought to do it," said Collins.

The West Main project, if approved by voters, would not be undertaken all at once but would be broken up into sections in order to have enough money each year to pay for the contracts under way in that year.

The section of West Main from the Natchez Trace Parkway to Coley Road would be the first section to be widened since the engineering work on that section already has been paid for with about $1.5 million left over from Phase I of the thoroughfare program.

Widening the entire section of West Main from Milford to Coley Road is expected to cost about $10 million.

If funds remain when the North Gloster Street and West Main Street projects are completed, the excess would be applied to widening Cliff Gookin between Main Street and the high school. That project would cost about $2 million.

All of the widening projects are intended to make the roads wide enough to add center turn lanes and left turn lanes at intersections, similar to what was done on Gloster Street.

Welcome improvement

While many of the business managers and owners contacted along the stretch of West Main Street targeted for widening said they were unaware of the upcoming election and plans for construction, most welcomed the idea despite the disruption the work would initially cause.

"I have a problem with people trying to turn in here and that would help," Tony Bonds, manager of Bumpers Drive-In, said of a center turn lane. He said he would expect business to drop off while the construction was under way but believed it would rebound later.

"I think they'll all come back afterwards," Bonds said.

Billy Foster, assistant manager of Russell's Beef House, agreed.

"I don't see how it could hurt," said Foster, who said traffic now passes motorists waiting to turn into the restaurant by pulling onto a paved shoulder.

Rita Suchanick, owner of West Heights Flowers, said she wouldn't stand in the way of progress but worried about the confusion the construction could cause.

"After it's finished it'll be fine, but it just seems to take so long," Suchanick said.

Jim High, chairman of the citizens group charged with monitoring the Major Thoroughfare Program to ensure the funds are spent as intended, said he hasn't heard of any organized opposition to extending the 10-mill tax.

"I would like to see it pass by 65 percent," High said of the upcoming referendum. "I think that would send a strong statement that people like what we are doing."

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