Port Gibson petition tops goal to stop road expansion

Published 9:56 am Wednesday, May 14, 2008

PORT GIBSON (AP) — An Internet petition created to help overturn state highway officials’ decision to widen historic Church Street in Port Gibson has surpassed its target of 2,500 signatures, making way for legal action many residents hope will halt plans for the highway.

The petition, along with letters received from people across the state, will serve as ammunition in the fight to keep Mississippi Department of Transportation officials from widening the stretch of U.S. 61 that extends through the town of about 2,000, said Keith Turner, an environmental attorney hired by a committee formed to keep MDOT’s plans from moving forward.

“There are several things we’re planning on using (the petition) for,” he said. “One of them is to demonstrate to DOT and state agencies so they understand the support level.”

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The petition, signed by Port Gibson residents as well as people across the state, will continue to collect signatures and comments that will act as leverage in meetings with state agencies, such as the Mississippi Development Authority.

Since Turner launched the site in early April, people from nearly all 50 states and more than 10 other countries have added their names – and, in some cases, comments – on the petition. This morning, 2,531 signatures were counted.

“We believe this issue encompasses more than just DOT. It hits on tourism and historical preservation. It’s a whole state interest,” Turner said.

The Mississippi Department of Transportation has scheduled a public meeting for Thursday at the city hall in Port Gibson.

Since plans to upgrade more than 5 miles of U.S. 61, known to locals as Church Street, to extend the existing four-lane highway were revealed by MDOT officials in March, many Port Gibson residents have feared the fate of the oak-lined thoroughfare.

Jane Ellis, chairman of the Highway 61 committee and a Church Street resident, said any presence of MDOT trucks has stirred the town’s residents in recent weeks.

MDOT officials have not swayed from their decision, offering no alternatives, such as a bypass, which residents believe will bring commercial business.

In addition to the churches and trees for which Church Street is best known, the street also has a couple of gas stations, a grocery store and a few fast food and local restaurants.

Even with the increased traffic the through-route would undoubtedly bring, Port Gibson residents don’t feel like the cherished street could support any business growth. That’s why a bypass is what the majority of residents support.

While a few residents are in favor of MDOT’s plans, Mayor Fred Reeves and the Claiborne County Board of Supervisors have expressed a desire to have a bypass.

“If a decision was made today to build a bypass – forget the fussing and fighting – I think we’d begin to see Port Gibson begin to shine,” said Vicksburg native Robert Clark, who is working to restore Collina, an 1835-built home in northern Claiborne County near Port Gibson.

Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall, who represents the central district which includes Port Gibson, has opposed the plan but has been outvoted by the two other members of the three-member commission — Wayne Brown of the southern district and Bill Minor of the northern district.

MDOT intends to use state funds rather than federal funds put aside for the project, one that’s been in the works for about 20 years and that’s part of the state’s four-lane construction program.

“Why should the state pay to build a federal highway?” Clark said.

Turner is also looking into other guidelines – specifically the National Environmental Policy Act and the Historical Preservation Act – that he believes the agency doesn’t appear to be following.

“We believe (MDOT officials) are violating some federal requirements. What it comes down to is there are federal laws that they need to comply with and, if they’re not, we’ll have to go to court,” he said. “We’re ready to move.”