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Wednesday, July 30, 2003

By Staff
Engineer seeks to clear up confusion on key interchange
To the editor:
Recently, there has been significant discussion regarding efforts to provide improved access to the Malone Ranch area. Our firm has been involved with potential development in that area for over 15 years. We have not responded to recent controversial issues as data provided by governmental officials and their representatives has been generally accurate. However, recent personal assaults require response.
The Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) approved an intersection concept for access from Highway 45 to Highway 80 for a Herring Group mall proposal on Malone Ranch approximately 15 years ago. That approved concept was utilized for planning purposes for access to this property as it was considered for industrial purposes. This was done to expedite construction so EMBDC could better market the property. MDOT staff was requested to revisit the concept, develop cost estimates for required construction and begin the process of having the interchange built.
During their review of the project, we were told their initial approval was premature. They stated the earlier design concept should not have been approved and it could not be utilized under today's guidelines. MDOT assistance was then requested to develop a suitable access.
There has been confusion regarding spacing criteria for interchanges on the interstate system. Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) guidelines recommend intersection spacing of three miles in rural areas and one mile in urban areas. Urban limits do not necessarily correspond with city limits. Instead, along I-20, Meridian's urban limits extend from the Interstate 20/59 intersection to near the Highway 45 Bypass. Thus, allowable interchange spacings are one mile west of the Bypass and three miles east of the Bypass. Although these are guidelines, FHWA only grants exceptions for extraordinary situations where no other practical alternative exists. Based on the guidelines, locations were considered for possible access routes.
Various concepts were considered. One concept was located on Highway 45 which resembled a paper clip. It required fly-overs across Nanabee Creek, the railroad and Highway 80. this concept was rejected as it was not safe for truck traffic and was very costly.
Next, access along Sweet Gum Bottom Road, originally constructed to support lightweight traffic, was also considered. Approximately 60 homes are along this route. We estimated half these homes would be impacted by improvements to make this roadway suitable for truck traffic. Also, this location did not meet spacing requirements noted above and was rejected as an alternate.
The Hawkins Crossing area meets spacing criteria. It will assist in relieving traffic congestion at the Highway 19 interchange. It will provide improved access to the existing Central Industrial Park as well as to businesses along Highway 80. It improves access to proposed development at Bonita Lakes. Thus, it meets a need and can be constructed in accordance with interchange criteria.
Location of this interchange is not based on political favoritism. FHWA mandates a detailed process to insure expenditure of their money to best meet transportation needs while minimizing impact to the public and the environment. A time schedule has been developed for this project. More time has been allocated for meeting the mandatory planning, environmental and public impact assessment than is provided for actual design. From personal experience, I can assure you local officials are not just concerned about the industrial development aspects of this project. They are also concerned about minimizing the impact of the development on local residents while maximizing roadway safety and economic opportunity for the general public.
Various alternates are being considered for providing a new interchange at Hawkins Crossing to meet local needs. One alternate will impact several private residences. Another only impacts a single, vacant residence. A draft location report has been submitted to MDOT and FHWA for review and comment. Upon completion of the review by professionals within both organizations, the material will be available for public review and comment.
Finally, improved access to this property is critical. Even more critical is the extension of water and sewer service to the area. To minimize cost to local taxpayers, the city and county have worked together, not only to secure funding for the interchange and access roads, but also to obtain a federal grant for providing water and sewer service to the area. Hopefully, bids will be received in the near future for this water and sewer service, which will then allow development in the area. The interchange and access roads will be provided later. With excellent property available and infrastructure provided, our area can expect great things to happen.
Terrell W. Temple, P.E.
Engineering Plus