Mississippi roads used to be some of the best

By CHARLES DUNAGIN,

With the exception of the interstates, I’m not familiar with many Alabama highways.

But for more than two decades on vacation trips and family visits to Florida, I was glad to reach the Mississippi state line coming back by way of Mobile.

At that point, as you travel west, U.S. Highway 98 becomes four lanes all the way to McComb. It is a relief from the stop and go two-lane traffic through numerous stoplights in Alabama. Frequently changing speed limits, ranging from 25 miles per hour to 55, can get you a ticket if you’re not constantly alert. Some people now avoid that stretch by staying on Interstate 10 until they get to Mississippi and then taking Highway 63 from Moss Point to Lucedale to get to Highway 98. It’s farther but less stressful.

For the past three springs, since moving from McComb to Oxford, I have taken a trip to Gulf Shores, Ala., the most recent one being last week.

My route now is Highway 6 to Tupelo and then Highway 45 south by Meridian. Four-lane all the way, until the Alabama line. Then it’s two-lane until you reach the outskirts of Mobile; not as bad as the stretch of 98 to the west, but still stressful enough to make you look forward to Mississippi on the way back.

These magnificent four-lane highways we now have in Mississippi, running north, south, east and west, are the result of one of the more progressive movements in modern Mississippi history.

Too bad the political leadership at the state level these days is unwilling or unable to keep a good system of state highways from going to pot.

In today’s political environment, they can’t even figure out a way to maintain what their predecessors built in 1987.

At that time the only four-lane highways in Mississippi consisted of federal interstates, Highway 49 from Yazoo City to Gulfport and Highway 82 from Greenville to Winona, according to authors Jere Nash and Andy Taggart’s book on Mississippi politics from 1976 to 2006. “Otherwise, you traveled two-lane roads. Not only were many of the two-lane roads extremely dangerous, but the lack of four-lane highways was blocking economic development throughout rural Mississippi,” they wrote.

With the aid of the business community, the legislation to four-lane more than 1,000 miles of highway was approved in 1987 over the veto of then-Gov. Bill Allain who had been pushing to abolish the elected highway commission and vest management of the highway department in a director appointed by the governor.

 

Allain lost that battle, but his veto of a bill funding the highway department in the legislative session of 1986 led to a confluence of circumstances paving the way to the eventual approval of the vast public works project.

Playing key roles in the effort were Central District Highway Commissioner Sam Waggoner who enlisted the aid of Yazoo City industrialist Owen Cooper who in turn was a key player in organizing the business community behind the effort which came to fruition in 1987.

The motor fuel tax was raised to 18.4 cents a gallon to pay for the program.

Unfortunately, the visionaries who enabled the massive highway construction that began in 1987 did not address the funding needs to preserve those highways in the future.

Perhaps they mistakenly thought future lawmakers, supported by their constituents, would take care of that.

The fuel tax is exactly where it was in 1987, although automobiles are using less fuel as highway maintenance costs have gone up.

Someone has calculated that had the fuel tax been pegged to inflation it would now be 23 cents higher.

The current legislative leadership, especially Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves who aspires to be governor, appears to be opposed to any serious effort to fund preservation of our highways.

Highway 45 is a fine route. But there are stretches, as is the case on most other highways in the state, where the pavement is getting rough.

On rural roads bridges are being closed because they are dangerous.

The day may be approaching when, on trips out of state, we’ll be looking forward to highways elsewhere, even around Mobile.

Charlie Dunagin is editor emeritus of the McComb Enterprise-Journal.

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