By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO - City officials looked with general approval on the list of road-improvement projects floated this week by the Major Thoroughfare Committee.

But not everyone agreed with the order of priorities, especially regarding the placement of the West Jackson Street widening project near the bottom of the list.

"I believe that the West Jackson Street should be moved up to one of the top priorities," said Ward 6 Councilman Mike Bryan, whose district includes a portion of West Jackson.

"That is a major east-west artery," he said. "It is unsafe. It is horrible. It's coming from the airport. That is a road we cannot overlook."

The two-lane street carries 5,800-7,200 vehicles daily, according to Mississippi Department of Transportation. It traverses commercial, residential and industrial areas, including the Tupelo Regional Airport, the Army National Guard and a large BancorpSouth campus.

Major Thoroughfare Committee members recommend widening the road to three lanes from North Gloster Street west to the airport, but its estimated $10 million construction cost means the group could do little else during its next five-year phase. So the project got bumped to the alternative list, meaning it will happen only if extra money somehow materializes.

Instead, the group set its priorities as widening portions of East Main Street east of U.S. 45, Veterans Boulevard south of U.S. 78, Eason Boulevard near the community college campus, and Thomas Street Extended to the new state Highway 6 interchange.

It also wants to add turn lanes along both sides of North Gloster street near the mall and provide about $5 million to the city for smaller road improvements.

Together, those top-tier projects will cost about $20 million. Money for the work comes from a 10-mill property tax assessment on city residents, who vote every five years on whether to extend the program for another phase.

Currently, the Major Thoroughfare Program is in Phase 4.

Mayor Jack Reed Jr. said he doesn't know enough about the group's decision-making process to comment on its list of priorities for Phase 5. But he said he supports its plans to fund millions of dollars worth of city streets projects.

"At this time, it's smart to take a step back," Reed said. "We've spent 20 years building new roads, and we need to take some of the funds and turn around and look at the streets we have and what we can do to keep them in good shape."

Reed said the city can use that money, in addition to its regular road budget, to fix potholes and overlay streets. But all projects funded with Major Thoroughfare Committee money must first meet the group's approval. The group also will manage those projects, just as it does the larger ones.

The East Main Street widening project has been on tap for several years, and was supposed to have been completed during the current phase. But money fell short, and it got bumped.

A longtime and vocal supporter of that project, former Ward 5 City Councilman Bill Martin, said he's thrilled the group finally will tackle the job.

"The Major Thoroughfare Program was first voted on in '92, and we'd been hoping that we'd get five lanes right away, but we've been waiting since '92 and it keeps getting moved," Martin said. "We really are going to expect it to be done in this phase."

East Main Street, whose four lanes merge into two as it gets farther east, logs between 17,000 and 19,000 vehicles daily, according to MDOT.

Also supporting East Main Street's high priority is Ward 4 Councilwoman Nettie Davis, who said the thoroughfare is long overdue for improvements.

But, like Bryan, she said West Jackson Street needs help and wants to see it moved up higher on the list.

"That should be a priority," she said. "It's been something we've been needing to do for a long time."

Bryan said West Jackson ought to take precedence over the project to widen Veterans, which ferries 7,200-8,100 vehicles daily by MDOT's count. Although Veterans has a higher traffic count, it's less congested than West Jackson, Bryan said.

Martin disagreed, as did council President Fred Pitts.

"If I had a vote," Pitt said, " would vote in favor of not widening West Jackson at all. It is a residential street. It is not a major thoroughfare."

As a councilman, though, Pitts does have a vote. The council must approve the Major Thoroughfare Committee's list of recommendations before they go to the public.

The committee is expected to vote on its list early next month, with the council getting a say by late January. If it passes both groups, the public likely will get its vote in May.

Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or emily.lecoz@djournal.com.

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