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Region unites to pursue federal transportation funding

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Three Southwest Mississippi counties and an historic local college have jointly applied for federal funding that would improve roads and bridges in rural areas and make it easier for local citizens to travel.

Claiborne, Franklin and Jefferson counties, together with Alcorn State University, are seeking approximately $20 million in federal funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation's TIGER discretionary grant program to rehabilitate local "farm to market roads" and improve regional access to road-dependent jobs in the agriculture, forestry, manufacturing and health care industries. The grant would pay for repairs to almost 40 miles of roads and replace 22 failing bridges in the three counties, and would provide ASU with funding for improvements to its extension program and Natchez-based farmer's market.

"This kind of aggressive, regional cooperation is unprecedented in Southwest Mississippi, and it's what it's going to take to give these citizens a safe, dependable road and bridge network," said WGK, Inc. Principal Jeff Knight, PE, a civil engineer who works for the counties and college. "There just isn't enough funding to repair all the road and bridge problems these counties are dealing with unless there's a big shot of federal funds like this."

If awarded, TIGER funding would be spent on a project called the Three-County Roadway Improvements Program for Southwest Mississippi (TRI-Mississippi). The program's goals are to improve rural routes for the movement of workers and goods, provide better access for students to reach local K-12 schools and ASU, and to improve access and evacuation at Grand Gulf Nuclear Generating Station, one of the region's largest employers. These goals would be accomplished by rebuilding 40 miles of roads near the power plant in Claiborne County and by replacing deficient bridges in the rural areas of Franklin and Jefferson counties where the majority of the population resides.

About $1 million of the requested amount would be allocated to ASU to pave the farm road at its main campus and to complete the funding package for the rehabilitation of the railroad depot in Natchez, where the college wants to relocate its successful farmer's market. The farmer's market works with small-operation farmers throughout the three counties to help them grow and market specialty crops to supplement their incomes.

"These three counties' relationship with Alcorn provided us with a unique opportunity for a regional approach," Knight said. "So many people from this region work at the college, so many local students get their college education there and the Alcorn extension program and market have a far reach. What's good for one is good for all four."

TIGER, which stands for Transportation Improvements Generating Economic Recovery, was created in 2009 as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Now in its fifth year, it will distribute more than $470 million to selected applicants nationwide. Hundreds of cities, towns, counties and other public and private entities apply for TIGER funding annually, and competition for the funding is extremely high.

Since the three counties and ASU represent a rural area, no local match for the funding is required.

Though the purpose of TRI-Mississippi is to help the region maintain its existing jobs, plenty of additional work will be created through its implementation. Following the Executive Office of the President, Council of Economic Advisors' estimate that one job-year is created for every $76,923 in transportation infrastructure spending, TRI-Mississippi has the potential to create 262 additional jobs in the economically-distressed region.

TRI-Mississippi would create almost 30 construction projects in the region that would be built simultaneously during a period beginning next August and ending by September 2015. Preparation and planning would begin this fall if funding is made available.

The program would also allow county supervisors in each county to "break even" in their duties to keep up infrastructure, a challenging job in a region with little resources and small tax bases from which to gather funds for projects.

According to the Mississippi Office of State Aid Road Construction, 39 of the 106 State Aid bridges in Franklin County have a sufficiency rating below 50, and 21 of 63 State Aid bridges in Jefferson County are likewise below that threshold. The average detour length in both counties is approximately 5 miles, a distance that creates a heavy burden on local families' fuel budgets over the course of a working year.

"If someone from a disadvantaged family is looking at those kinds of extra distances each day and each week, it hurts them. If that someone is a student who can't make it to class on time, or a small farmer who can't make it to the market, it also hurts us as an institution," said Dr. Dalton McAfee, extension director at ASU. "We depend on them being here."

Franklin County Board of Supervisors President George Collins pointed out that forestry businesses are very important in his county, where the U.S. Forest Service manages cuttings in the Homochitto National Forest, which dominates much of the county's area.

"When you get on those forest roads, those old, timber bridges are everywhere. You can't take an 80,000-pound log truck over a 6,000-pound bridge that's 100 years old," Collins said. "We replace as many of those bridges as we can, but we still have a big bridge problem that burdens that industry."

Jefferson County Board of Supervisors President Trent Hudson said failed bridges are also having a negative impact on the many agriculture and forestry business in his county.

"We have Guedon Farms, a huge farming operation, and those trucks are having to detour on gravel roads," he said. "On the other end of the county, we've got poultry farms having to detour all over. A little county like ours that needs jobs? We can't handle all these bridge failures."

Claiborne County doesn't need new bridges, but failing roads and seasonal flooding are a constant problem there, said board president Eddwin Smith.

"You've never seen an industry as big as Grand Gulf surviving on a road as inadequate to their needs as Grand Gulf Road is," he said, naming the main entrance to the power plant, which will be targeted with TIGER funding. "This is a place that employs about 700 people - a lot of them from Claiborne County. To me, this kind of project is what TIGER is all about."