MERIDIAN — GULFPORT -- The north-south connector road to serve an expanded state port will be built even though it is mired in lawsuits, and port expansion plans have been scaled back.
Southern District Transportation Commissioner Tom King also said a portion of the road will have to be elevated because the port is being elevated to 25 feet above sea level for storm-surge protection. He said the Mississippi Department of Transportation would consider moving the southern portion of the road from 29th Avenue to 30th Avenue, based on public input.
King told the Sun Herald on Thursday: "Let's not lose our vision for the port. It's very vital. It's important not only for the Coast, but for the whole state. We're building that road. It's very important to our plans."
After Hurricane Katrina, state officials and the port were shooting for a wider, 45- to 50-foot-deep channel to serve mega-ships from the Panama Canal, but they are now focused on getting maintenance dredging from the Army Corps of Engineers that would return the entire 16-mile channel to its permitted depth of 36 feet.
Maintenance dredging is overdue, with about four miles of the channel silted in to a depth of 33 feet.
Port officials also are behind schedule with an 84-acre restoration and expansion of the West Pier that would serve its current tenants and create space for more. The West Pier is expected to be finished in 2017.
The connector road from the port south of U.S. 90 to Interstate 10 would handle increased truck traffic from the port expansion.
King acknowledged the road will, optimistically, take four to five years to complete. MDOT has stopped trying to buy rights of way south of 28th Street because of the litigation on the north end of the project. An eminent domain and a federal lawsuit are pending over MDOT's plans to place 1,638 acres, 1,000 of it owned by the Ward family, in a perpetual conservation easement.
The Wards and the city do not want to see that happen because the land sits off I-10 and U.S. 49, Gulfport's busiest commercial corridor. Gulfport is fighting to intervene in the eminent domain case, a move rejected by the local judge. The city has appealed to the state Supreme Court.
"Our hands are tied until the litigation is settled," King said.
King also said MDOT is looking at alternate sources to fund road construction after 2013. MDOT has studied a Florida practice of leasing state rights of way for cell-phone towers. Toll roads in high-population areas -- the Coast, Jackson and possibly DeSoto County in north Mississippi -- also are an option, he said.
"We're talking about it," King said, "researching what other states are doing. If we do not get more revenue coming in, we'll be down to maintenance, with no new construction."
King said $100 million is set aside for Coast projects that will be completed, although some will not begin until 2013.
MDOT also is trying to be more frugal, he said, with an end to the days of international travel by commissioners.
MDOT leaders in years past came under fire for spending on helicopters and a headquarters -- jokingly referred to as the "Taj Mahal" -- with expensive furniture and decor.
Commissioners and agency staff members also have been criticized for travel, particularly abroad. They took "fact-finding" and convention trips to Puerto Rico; Budapest, Hungary; Vienna, Austria; Brussels, Belgium; and Cancun, Mexico. A recent analysis by the Sun Herald showed at least 24 MDOT employees had traveled to Puerto Rico.
"I think the travel you're going to see now is all legitimate," King said. "You don't go out of country and all that stuff. That doesn't help anybody, for sure. It's not going to happen under the current commissioners, 24 people going to Puerto Rico. What can you learn that you won't learn here?"
Geoff Pender, Sun Herald staff writer contributed to this report.