June 29, 2013 8:47:10 PM
Nathan Gregory - [email protected]
Acquiring federal environmental documents for construction of a bypass for Highway 45 North was a third of the battle in getting the project off the ground, according to Northern District Transportation Commissioner Mike Tagert.
Now, engineers are in the process of working on the preliminary design, a 15-month process which he said he hopes can be done as early as the end of this year.
Tagert told members of the Host Lions Club Friday that the state received the environmental document last September and contracted Neel-Shaffer to head up design work the following month. Simply getting the environmental approval was a long process due to the bypass needing to run through the wettest portion of Lowndes County, he said.
"It takes years to get an environmental document for a bypass which runs parallel and through the wettest area of the county, (including) along the Tenn-Tom Waterway," Tagert said. "It's actually a big plus that we have this document. It legally allows us to move forward using state and/or federal funds to build the Columbus bypass. It also outlines the basic route and the feasibility of where that route would go."
Once engineers complete the route design, property acquisition would be the next step. That process could begin next year, he said.
"What (the environmental document) doesn't do is acquire right of way and it doesn't provide a construction cost, which are our two remaining challenges ... We will start looking at the parcels and right-of-way acquisition. The way the process works is we have to have every dime in the bank before we can buy the first piece of property for acquisition," Tagert said. "The first financial hurdle is trying to go through there and purchase the property in a responsible, ethical way from the landowners. That's the next point in the process which we'll go through hopefully starting next year."
Another hurdle is determining how much the project would cost. An estimated cost study has not been completed, and the Mississippi Department of Transportation does not have the funding currently to commit to the construction aspect of the project, Tagert said.
Part of the mystery with how a big a price tag the project would carry is that a sizable chunk of the bypass would be elevated due to the environmental sensitivity of the area, Tagert said.
The Dispatch previously reported that an MDOT study from 2001 showed the need for an alternate route between the Columbus Air Force Base area of Highway 45 and Highway 82. A public hearing on the matter was held in 2010. It was reported the bypass would begin at the interchange with Highway 82 and Main Street, near Waters Truck, and would proceed north for about eight miles and join Highway 45 near CAFB.
While getting the pieces in place to break dirt is a slow process, congestion on Highway 45 North is not going to disappear, and the ramifications of this project extend beyond relieving traffic in Lowndes County's most accident-prone area, Tagert said.
"This has impact that reaches several counties out. It could be really helpful and certainly change the way we navigate Columbus," he said. "It's a game changer and it's going to really be something that's going to change the way we move around not only Lowndes County but the entire area. It's going to change the Golden Triangle for certain."
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.