Local group seeks ways to stop plan to put median on busy thoroughfare
“Can we stop it?” That was the question 16th Avenue business owners were asking in reference to the Mississippi Department of Transportation’s plan to build a median on Laurel’s busiest road.
The proposed project is expected to begin rolling out in the last half of 2023, and the 16th Avenue Committee — made up of nearly 20 business owners — met at Laurel Airport Monday night to hear reports on the latest MDOT update on the project.
“After working on it for five or six weeks, what I see happening is that MDOT has the money, they want to spend it and they all want to get bonuses at the end of the year,” said said band spokesman Ron Swindall. “All these big engineering firms want to make all this government money. Neither party, not once, stopped and asked questions of the people involved.
“They can’t refute me that they did everything to inform the businesses on 16th Avenue of what was happening. And from what I could gather, they didn’t want the public’s opinion on this. They wanted to use the money for what they wanted.
MDOT’s latest report to the 16th Avenue committee said the project was finalized and the deadline for challenging the issue had passed — although no formal vote was taken on the issue by the department, Swindall said. Seeking legal counsel against MDOT was an option suggested by some business owners, but a consensus within the committee was that the most effective plan would be to attack the problem from multiple angles.
“We wanted everyone here tonight to know that this is not something we can solve by just making a phone call,” Swindall said. “It’s going to have to be a fight against MDOT.
“Look, I know Tom King and Brad White at MDOT. They are good people, but the problem is that they have become bureaucrats beholden to the bureaucratic community. They’d rather do that than listen to business owners, who provide the majority of their tax money, allowing them to do whatever they want. They are not servants of the people. They are the lords of the people.
In order to fight MDOT on the issue, the committee proposed creating a number of subcommittees to lobby the department. A series of business and residential petitions, social media campaigns, working with the media, and fundraising for possible legal fees were all discussed. The committee has indicated that they will soon begin to organize themselves. Although MDOT said the plan is definitely going ahead due to a high rate of traffic accidents on 16th Avenue, business owners plan to point out that the road once had a median, but that it was removed in the late 1980s due to security concerns.
A lawyer present at the meeting, who asked to remain anonymous, agreed to draw up a comprehensive plan for the committee to set in motion, which would reflect their idea of subcommittees. The lawyer estimated that there was a 65% chance of stopping the midline construction. If he can’t be stopped, all of the business owners in attendance expressed concerns that reduced accessibility to their businesses is impacting their bottom line.
“They said it was going to reduce traffic by 17%,” Ken Keyes said. “How is it going to help retail if you divert 17% of the traffic from these companies? This will only drive traffic to our residential neighborhoods. If there is a window, we have to fight against it, we have to do it.
King has been contacted but unavailable for comment at press time on Wednesday.
“It’s just irritating to me that government officials can say there is no time for public comment, when the time they have scheduled has not been promoted,” said Swindall. “They took the path of least resistance with no regard for the people of Laurel other than highly questionable security issues.”
At a June meeting on the project that MDOT representatives were invited to but did not attend, Rep. Donnie Scoggin (R-Ellisville) explained how the project came about, noting that it came from the federal.
“The Biden administration has a lot of money, and they’ve been mining data,” and the stretch of road in Laurel “has reached the threshold” in the number of traffic accidents to “enforce these changes,” he said. -he declares. “That’s where it all happened.”
He and other officials said that when MDOT receives mandates like the one from the federal government, changes must be made or it risks losing federal funding. King is the official “with the pot of money” and control of highway projects in Jones County.
“It’s like they put a gun to our heads and said, ‘Do it or we’ll withhold your money,'” said Larry Loftin, another 16th Avenue business owner. “We have to fight against that.”
Scoggin said: “The only thing to do is contact Tom King…and good luck with that.”