Smooth move: City receives historic $25M grant to revitalize roads
By Mark Thornton
Motorists in Laurel will soon have a smoother ride on some of the city’s most traveled roadways thanks to federal funds of almost $25 million.
America’s “Home Town” is the recipient of a $24.8 million award from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability & Equity program. It’s the largest grant awarded to a municipality since the inception of the RAISE discretionary grant program.
Mayor Johnny Magee received a call from U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.) on his cellphone just before the announcement of the allocation of funds. That $25 million phone call was the result of three years of efforts by a lot of people, he said.
The city applied for the same grant in 2021 and 2022 and received a rating of “deserving” last year when its application made it to the desk of Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg. After that, city leaders had a Zoom call with USDOT officials “to explain to us how we could strengthen our proposal,” Magee said. “They gave us some valuable information.”
Magee and City Council President Tony Thaxton, among others, then made a trip to Washington, D.C., in late May and met with Sens. Roger Wicker and Hyde-Smith. They took her and her staff to dinner and “had some very down-home conversation” about their home state in the nation’s capital that night, Magee recalled. They also talked business.
Hyde-Smith “seemed to take a personal interest in the project and was very knowledgeable about it,” Magee said. A group that was hired through Neel-Schaffer Engineering and city grant writer Whitney Pickering also assisted, he said, “and that is much appreciated.”
A couple of Laurel luminaries — opera diva Leontyne Price and her brother retired Gen. George Price — weighed in with letters of support to Buttigieg, along with some of the state’s elected officials and local business people and residents.
“I am indebted to all of them, especially Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith,” Magee said.
But because of them, the city won’t go in debt doing the work. The city is receiving 100 percent funding after receiving what was described as the “highly competitive” grant.
“That means no local tax dollars will be required to match this federal grant,” Magee said.
The USDOT received $15 billion in requests for a portion of the $2.26 billion in available funds. Only two RAISE grants were awarded in the state and it’s the largest grant in city history, Magee said.
“We are deeply thankful to the U.S. Department of Transportation for recognizing the potential in Laurel,” Magee said. “These funds are not just an investment in infrastructure, they’re an investment in the people of Laurel and our future.”
Magee credited officials in the state’s federal delegation — Sens. Wicker and Hyde-Smith, and Reps. Mike Ezell and Michael Guest — for helping the city get the grant.
“Their efforts have been pivotal in securing this historic grant,” Magee said.
The money is expected to be used to fund improvements on 5th Street, Sawmill Road, Magnolia Street and Teresa Street, including drainage improvements at its underpass — which was under water again on Tuesday with flash-flooding from an afternoon thunderstorm.
The work that’s planned will include road reconstruction, a new roundabout, improved lighting, landscaping, handicapped-compliant sidewalks and enhanced lane markings. The design phase should be completed within the year, then the city will have to acquire a small amount of right-of-way. Construction will likely begin in 2025.
“This grant will fund crucial improvements to the city’s road network, replacing outdated streets with modern, safe and aesthetically pleasing infrastructure,” Magee said. “By revitalizing our roads, we’re creating a safer, more beautiful city and laying the groundwork for a brighter tomorrow. We are thrilled to embark on this transformative project and eagerly anticipate the positive changes it will bring to the city.”