$24M: Officials hoping for funds for overpasses, other projects

By HASKEL BURNS,

Hattiesburg officials are hoping a $24 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation will help several projects in the city aimed at relieving train traffic and improving safety and infrastructure, including two overpasses, a new railroad spur line and a pedestrian pathway in downtown.

An application for a Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development grant was approved during a special-called meeting Tuesday by Hattiesburg City Council members via a 4-0 vote. Ward 5 Councilman Nicholas Brown participated via teleconference, while Ward 2 Councilwoman Deborah Delgado was absent from the meeting.

“What we’re trying to do is be responsible with our citizens’ complaints, and that is recognizing that the trains are what they are, and recognizing they were here first,” Mayor Toby Barker said. “So how do we build a downtown transportation environment – in downtown and surrounding downtown – that is conducive to pedestrians, vehicles, trains and cycles?

“So that’s what this whole application is about, trying to solve this issue once and for all.”

The overpasses would be constructed in the Hall Avenue area to pass over the Canadian National line in that area. Council members recently voted to approve a contract with Hattiesburg firm Neel-Schaffer to provide engineering services related to the project.

“We want to try to get traffic into the East Jerusalem neighborhood – with our police station, we want to get our first responders into that neighborhood,” Barker said.

The grant would also help fund a new railroad spur line at the Norfolk-Southern switchyard at Mobile Street, which Barker said would greatly decrease the length of time for the trains to switch out. Also on the list for the grant are roadway improvements from West Pine Street to Bay Street, including 5- and 8-foot sidewalks, a center landscaped median and a roundabout at Hall Avenue and Bay Street.

Dynamic message signs would be placed at the main roads into downtown to communicate railroad congestion to motorists, and a pathway would be added along Gordon’s Creek from Town Square Park to the former Hattiesburg High School building on Main Street, which is currently being converted into age-restricted apartments.

The grant may be used for up to 80 percent of the costs of the projects, with a 20 percent match from the city. Per terms of the application, Hattiesburg will commit the minimum match of at least $8 million.

Barker said the BUILD grants, which are the new version of TIGER grants, are notoriously hard to receive, and the city will pursue other options for funding if the BUILD grant does not come through. Officials hope to know the status of the grant by early November.

“These are far large projects, and (approximately) 950 communities applied last year, and just under 100 were awarded,” he said. “So fewer than 10 percent of the communities that applied actually got these grants.

“However, if you don’t apply, you certainly won’t get them.”

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