Columbus Dispatch

Federal grant to fund $12.66M in improvements along Highway 182

By Tess Vrbin

About a mile of downtown Starkville along Highway 182, or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, will get a long-awaited makeover thanks to a $12.66 million federal grant, the largest infrastructure grant the city has ever received, Mayor Lynn Spruill announced Wednesday.

Some buildings along that stretch of road between North Long Street and Old West Point Road are empty and falling apart, walkways are discontinuous and high-speed internet access is not available everywhere.

The grant will make the area more pedestrian-friendly and wheelchair-accessible, increase broadband access and improve infrastructure and stormwater drainage, making the area more attractive to potential businesses, city leaders say.

"It's phenomenal and tremendous (and) changes the whole landscape of 182 from an economic development standpoint," Ward 1 Alderman Ben Carver said.

The U.S. Department of Transportation's Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development, or BUILD Transportation Discretionary Grant program, funds "projects that have a significant local or regional impact," according to the DOT website. The grants were known as Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER Discretionary Grants, when the city first developed an interest in obtaining one for Highway 182 about a decade ago, Spruill said. The city applied for the grant off and on before applying for three consecutive years, she said.

"We were persistent enough for three years in a row that we finally got it awarded," she said.

The grant is an 80/20 match, meaning it will cost the city about $3.5 million, but the benefits of the project outweigh the cost, Spruill said.

Oktibbeha County, Mississippi State University, the Mississippi Department of Transportation, both of Mississippi's U.S. senators and U.S. Rep. Michael Guest (R-Brandon) all helped advocate for Starkville to receive the grant.

Guest, U.S. Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-Biloxi) and U.S. Sens. Roger Wicker and Cindy Hyde-Smith, also Republicans, worked together to secure the grant for Starkville and a $20.46 million grant for Gulfport, according to a joint press release from the four Congressional offices.

"The addition of this infrastructure will help revitalize parts of Starkville and bring even more modern technology and business opportunity to our district," Guest said in the release.

Northern District Commissioner Mike Tagert wrote a letter of support to DOT and helped provide information for the city to improve its grant application, he said.

Enhancing the quality of life in an area will encourage economic growth, Tagert said.

"Improving (wheelchair) accessibility, improving pedestrian and bike access only increases the value of a property and the opportunities it'll have," he said.

Highway 182 currently has "an intermittent system of bike lanes, sidewalks and proper traffic controls," and the grant will allow the city to connect those pieces, Tagert said.

Another longstanding infrastructure problem along the route is stormwater drainage, which has damaged buildings and inhibited economic growth in the area, City Engineer Edward Kemp said.

"We've got very antiquated, very inferior infrastructure that is crumbling, that has failed, that is undersized, that is inadequately performing even during normal rain events," he said.

Ward 5 residents will appreciate the addition of sidewalks to Old West Point Road near the Highway 182 intersection, Alderman Hamp Beatty said.

"A lot of people like to traverse that Old West Point area, and their only choices are to walk in the street or walk in a ditch, one or the other," he said.

Carver and Beatty both acknowledged that the city would not have the means to take on a project of such magnitude on its own. Spruill said activity to implement the variety of changes will not begin until 2020.

Longer-lasting infrastructure will make transportation in the Highway 182 corridor more efficient, Kemp said.

"We're very thankful for the opportunity to utilize these funds to improve an area of town that has often been overlooked and is ripe for some increased economic development opportunities," he said.