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MDOT begins preparations to widen U.S. 90 to six lanes from Ocean Springs to Gautier

By Warren Kulo | Gulflive.com | March 14, 2013

This area of U.S. 90 from Highway 57 into Gautier is part of a roughly 11 mile stretch of Highway 90 which will be expanded to six lanes by the Mississippi Department of Transportation. Warren Kulo/Gulflive.com 

OCEAN SPRINGS, Mississippi -- The Mississippi Department of Transportation is in the initial stages of a planned widening of U.S. 90 to six lanes from Vermont Avenue in Ocean Springs to Dolphin Drive in Gautier.

MDOT engineer Kelly Castleberry said Thursday surveyors have begun surveying the roughly 11 mile stretch of U.S. 90 -- the only area of U.S. 90 not already six lanes.

"We've still got some work to do on the survey," Castleberry said. "Then we'll start the process of bringing in a consultant and begin discussing the plans."

Castleberry said there is no time frame as yet for when the project will begin and the cost of the project will be determined by the plan which is ultimately selected.

Once begun, Castleberry estimates the project would take 18-24 months to complete, although he noted that the project would be done in sections. Individual business owners and residents along that stretch of the highway would be directly impacted for about 12 months, he said.

He said any plan chosen will involve widening the highway to six lanes and include landscaping and that MDOT intends to "involve the city and citizens to determine what they'd like to see happen."

Which will come as good news for Ocean Springs Mayor Connie Moran. She touched on the impending MDOT project during a city planning meeting Wednesday night, noting "this is the most significant infrastructure project this city will see in the next 20 years."

"We've known for years that was their plan," Moran said. "We don't object to that. We just want to ensure it's done right for the city."

Gautier Tommy Fortenberry said he, too, welcomed the project.

"I think it's a great idea," Fortenberry said, "especially with the morning and evening traffic. It should make it a smoother ride through both cities.

"When you add to infrastructure, it's because you expect more use of the infrastructure. That's what both cities are trying to do -- add to what they already have. It should improve the quality of life in both cities."

Moran and other Ocean Springs officials are determined to be involved in the planning process. Moran said what the city doesn't want is to simply have MDOT widening the highway to the outside of existing lanes and remove the possibility of frontage roads along that stretch.

"We don't want them to just mow down the trees, widen the highway to people's front doors -- and they could certainly do that," Moran said. "We have to see the best possible project that's sensitive to our city's needs."

U.S. 90 was once a primitive Mississippi coastline roadway known as Beach Drive. It began as a trail that connected six small rural coast towns. By 1908, state and local governments joined with private citizens to fund upgrades along the roadway.

Improvements to the scenic roadway continued, although the next decade of construction was plagued by a series of interruptions, including hurricanes, war and lack of funds.

In 1921, Jackson County sold bonds to finish construction and pave their stretch of roadway. Four years later, the roadway was designated as United States Highway Route 90 from Texas to Jacksonville, Fla.

By 1960, U.S. Highway 90 was a four-lane highway from the Bay of St. Louis to Biloxi Bay. By 1974, U.S. 90 was a four-lane highway from Biloxi Bay to the Mississippi/Alabama line.

Castleberry said traffic studies done by MDOT supported the idea of widening the highway to six lanes.

"First and foremost, MDOT saw the need for improving traffic conditions on Highway 90 in Jackson County," he said.

Casteberry also said it was too early to determine the cost of the project. That number, he said, will ultimately be determined by the design.

Moran said she favors a design in which the highway is widened to the inside, which would require MDOT reworking the medians and landscaping, which in turn would allow the city to maintain and add frontage roads along the highway.

"That's the more expensive route, but I think it would be well worth the cost and effort," she said, adding that frontage roads are the far safer route to provide access to and from the highway.

Moran also said she doesn't anticipate MDOT breaking ground on the project for two to three years.

"But this needs to be on everyone's radar right now," she said. "That's our growth area. We need to get it right."

The city plans to form a steering committee comprised of officials and residents to stay in contact with MDOT during the process.

"This is our one chance to get it right," Moran said.