Still Waiting

By ANTHONY WARREN,

Museum Trail project suffers delays; target date now early fall.

Clay Hays knows about perseverance.

For nearly a decade, the Northsider has worked to push the Museum Trail forward, and for years, he’s waited as the project has been hampered by delay after delay.

Today, instead of having a paved, multi-use walkway and bicycle path, the trail is still a mud and gravel track.

And after promises the work would be bid out at the start of 2019, the much-anticipated project has again been pushed back, with state officials saying it could be late summer or early fall before the  project will be let out for construction. 

City and state officials met recently to discuss the project, which is currently under review by the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT). “They’re in the process of finalizing the design and expect to be able to move forward to the next phase soon,” said Central District Commissioner Dick Hall. “There are design variances to work through to ensure the safest route for motorists, cyclists and pedestrians.

“We want to make sure all bases are fully covered before moving on to the next phase.”

News comes nearly eight years after Jackson received a $1.1 million federal grant to help pay for the project, and several months after city leaders told the Sun they expected construction to be bid out early this year.

Hays, a Jackson cardiologist and proponent of trails in the capital city, remains confident the pathway will be built, but like everyone else, is frustrated with the project’s slow pace.

“We’ve been working on it for a while. It’s all about perseverance,” he said. “We don’t give up easy.”

The trail, formerly known as the Museum-to-Market Trail, will connect downtown Jackson to the LeFleur Museum District on the Northside.

Proponents, like Hays, said the trail could be the backbone of a much larger system that would eventually tie together many of the city’s tourist destinations, including the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Museum.

“We have to get this section done first,” he said. 

As a heart doctor, Hays is equally interested in the impact the foot and bike path could have on residents’ overall health. Jackson is listed as one of the “fattest cities in the United States,” according to the website Active.com.

Trails provide an easy, affordable option for individuals to get outside and get in shape.

Despite its promise, numerous complications have kept the trail from coming to fruition.

For instance, it took years for the city to obtain the easements and rights-of-way needed for the project.

Jackson brought on Neel-Schaffer in 2012 to design the project and handle right-of-way acquisition.

Once design work did get started, engineers learned that they would have to relocate a portion of the trail to reduce its overall construction costs.

The trail was further delayed because the city had to install a 48-inch water main along the project’s proposed path.

Initially, the Museum Trail was expected to run along the Pearl River and around the J.H. Fewell Water Treatment Plant to LeFleur’s Bluff State Park.

However, because of a drainage ditch near the plant, engineers determined that a box culvert would be needed, something that would have raised the project’s cost substantially.

The project was re-routed through the Belhaven neighborhood.

The delays could have been costly.

In 2015, Jackson nearly lost the $1.1 million grant awarded for the project. (The city received the matching grant in 2011.) However, MDOT extended the deadline to begin construction at the urging of Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall.

“This grant dates back to a time when it was easier to get extensions,” Hall recalled. “If it had been awarded (recently), they would have lost it.” 

Water main installation wrapped up in the spring of 2017. Last spring, the council approved purchasing the final easements needed for the project. And in November, final plans for the trail were submitted to MDOT for review.

Because the project is being paid for with federal funds, the state transportation agency has to sign off on all aspects of the project. That includes approving easement and rights-of-way purchases, project designs and contracts for construction.

Several agencies within MDOT are involved in the approvals process, including its “Local Public Agency” division, which oversees most of the agency’s grants-funded projects, as well as the department’s roadway design division, according to Michael Flood, assistant to Commissioner Hall.

Even with so many layers of oversight, Jackson Engineering Manager Charles Williams was hopeful the project would be ready to bid by this January.

However, January came and went without the project being approved.

And as of last week, the city still had not been given permission to advertise for construction.

MDOT raised several concerns during the review process.

Among them, agency officials questioned how the trail would be impacted by the proposed Riverside Drive Reconstruction Project. (That project includes completely rebuilding Riverside from North State Street to the I-55 North flyover bridge, within the trail’s footprint.)

State engineers also were concerned whether the trail would meet ADA standards along the roadway. MDOT was looking into pedestrian safety along Museum Boulevard.

Said Hall, “We want to make sure all bases are fully covered before moving on to the next phase.”

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