GCN Special Report

Canal Road Connector: Not Our Road

Road Might Not Even Benefit the State Much

By Keith Burton – GCN     Filed 4/14/06

This past week Gulfport’s Mayor and City Council went on record opposing the Mississippi Department of Transportation plan to build an elevated road through the heart of the city.  Called the Canal Road Connector, Mayor Brent Warr in a recent press conference April 10, told the public and MDOT, “This is not their road, it is OUR road!” (Emphasis, Brent Warr)

Warr is alarmed, and rightly so, that MDOT’s road will create a deadzone and blighted area through the heart of the city.

But while Warr may think it is “our” road, it unfortunately, is not, as far as MDOT is concerned and according to documents researched by GulfCoastNews.com.

MDOT’s insistence over how they are going to build the Canal Road Connector stems not from a need to help improve the Coast’s transportation system, nor ease traffic congestion here, or even to improve the Coast’s overall economy.

The purpose, according to records reviewed by GCN, is to make it easier for South American goods arriving to the port in Gulfport to pass through the Coast (and Mississippi) on its way to other parts of the nation. The road will serve no other purpose.

Studies that MDOT has used to justify the Canal Road project depend on economic development figures that were developed in the 1990’s that envisioned trade with South America and Mexico increasing. This increase would be as a result in the growth in the economies in South America. But that has not happened, as proof is the huge increase in illegal aliens coming to the U.S. and Mississippi from throughout South American and Mexico. Trade with the region is not growing substantially and even if it was, Mississippi would not be a significant benefactor.

In fact, MDOT is more than just wrong about the need for the Connector, it has also cannibalized money targeted for the gaming industry to focus on the Canal Road project, which is estimated to cost over $300 million for just phase one.  

The Canal Road project includes two phases, one for the southern section from Interstate 10 to the Mississippi Port in Gulfport. Phase two runs north of I-10 to Hwy 49. The project is destined to be a design-build project, which would circumvent much public review as detailed plans would not be available. GCN did obtain a rough map of the layout you see here. (Right)

The actual costs for the project are likely to be much higher as the phase 2 costs have not been made public.

It seems MDOT’s single minded focus to build the Canal Road Connector has nothing to do with solving the Coast’s transportation problems in light of the area’s casino industry growth, but only to make it easier for truckers to move goods out of the area. MDOT’s elevated road doesn’t allow for business corridor development, which is what Gulfport is upset about.

But the billion dollar gaming industry should be alarmed that MDOT is more concerned about moving goods out of the state then helping to build the transportation system the Coast needs for its rapid development as a major tourism destination, and corresponding population boom as a result of post Katrina redevelopment.

This shortsighted use of outdated trade data to support a possible increase in Latin American trade could place the entire casino industry in jeopardy. That’s because MDOT’s focus isn’t on solving the Coast’s transportation problems but building a road with a narrow and questionable need at this time. There is every indication that some of the billion dollar federal Katrina road money may now be spent on this project.

MDOT belongs to an organization called the Southeastern Transportation Alliance. In fact it is a key member of this organization, whose purpose isn’t to solve transportation issues for citizens, but to expedite trade growth with South America. MDOT is actually the lead agency for this organization, which includes many other Southeastern states, the same states that are currently experiencing an exponential growth in the number of illegal aliens.

The Southeastern Transportation Alliance was formed in 1996 for the purpose of undertaking the Latin America Trade and Transportation Study (LATTS). Members of the Alliance include Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Puerto Rico, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia.

The LATTS report was a Federal Highway Administration Pool Fund study managed by the Mississippi Department of Transportation.

The Latin American Trade and Transportation Study forms the framework for the justification of MDOT’s Canal Road Connector project, not what the Coast needs for its current economic development, which involves tourism and casino industry destination issues.

You may not have heard about the Southeastern Transportation Alliance, and frankly, information on this agency is hard to find. But it mission is not to improve the Coast’s transportation needs but serves a globalist goal of increasing trade with very little for citizen’s benefit. It seems its sole initial mission was to fund the LATTS study. More recently, the same group, currently headed up by Mississippi’s Butch Brown, wants to establish an Institute for Trade and Transportation Studies to help control the debate regarding transportation issues in member states.

While such powerful states as Texas, North Carolina, and Florida are members of the Alliance, remarkably, our state is the lead state in this organization’s activities, and thus, has something at stake to show off to the other member states. The Canal Road Connector project is just that. Among the road projects listed in this agency’s action plan, is the Canal Road Connector.

MDOT’s director, Butch Brown, plays a key role then in its plans.

MDOT was ordered by the legislature to complete all gaming road projects before initiating the Canal Road Connector project, which it has not done. Actually, MDOT lobbied the state legislature and successfully merged various separate state programs into a larger program, which had the effect of combining the funding sources and eliminating restrictions. Basically, MDOT can do what it wants. That is why MDOT routinely ignores elected officials.

The following is from the Executive Summary of the LATTS II report in 2003.

• The MS Legislature created the Gaming Infrastructure Program in 1995. They

designated 25% of the state gaming tax to the program (2% of gross gambling

receipts) and directed the funds to MDOT. As part of this program, the

Legislature also designated where the money should be spent. They designated

some specific routes and in some areas required various intersection

improvements. Canal Road was one of the designated routes.

• The Legislature also allocated $6 million of Economic Development funds to the

Canal Road project.

• The MDOT proceeded with the environmental analysis and concluded the route

should be “full access control” Interstate design standards (cost approximately

$300 million).

• The Legislature later (1998 or 1999) required MDOT to have an independent

priority study done for the Gaming Roads. The Gaming Infrastructure Program

required the first $36 million of tax revenue to go for construction and everything

over that amount to be for maintenance. They also required MDOT to sell $300

million in bonds to expedite the program. The expiration of the tax was 2012.

• MDOT conducted the priority study. Projects were then scheduled based on this

study. The Gaming Infrastructure Program will generate about $600 million in

construction revenues and projects designated by the Legislature totaled about

$1.2 billion.

The mandated priority schedule used all the Gaming Infrastructure Program

revenue before Canal Road could be programmed for construction.

• In 2002 the Legislature enacted Vision-21, a $3.6 billion, 20 year, 4-lane highway

construction program.

• Vision-21 merged the Gaming Infrastructure Program, Phase IV of the 1987

Highway Program, and included routes recommended by the MDOT as needing

capacity improvement during the period 2005 thru 2015. Canal Road is included

in the $3.6 billion.

• The current Vision-21 schedule for Canal Road is 2014 & 2016.

Clearly something has moved up the date a bit.

MDOT officials will surely launch an all out blitz of information regarding their agenda and the Canal Road Project regarding this GCN Special Report. Some of this might be believed. But the Coast’s redevelopment and the state’s economic development needs a agency with better focus than staking the Coast's future on the possible increase in trade with South America as a reason to spend this money at this time.

MDOT has not made a case for the economic value of its Canal Road Connector road plans. It has for years obstinately refused public scrutiny, suggestions, and insulted elected officials on this and other important and needed Coast road projects.

The Sun Herald reported recently,

“Warr said a high-rise bypass over downtown would devastate business owners who rely on traffic near their shops and "irreparably harm the historic character of downtown and contribute to the degradation of our natural heritage." Among the groups with letters of opposition is the state port, which could lose some valuable land to MDOT's proposed roadway.

But later, to the press, Brown insinuated the western side of downtown Gulfport doesn't look too spiffy anyway, especially when compared with areas under and around the high-rise I-110 in Biloxi.”

MDOT’s leaders are not answerable to elected local officials or even state leadership. Audits of the agency’s performance have consistently revealed poor planning and use of the funds it has on hand. MDOT officials will say that others keep up with the money they use, but MDOT rarely uses its own work to note success or justify its actions. Usually the agency’s leaders will just blame the messenger and quit talking to them.

That type of action typically intimidates local officials into submission as they need MDOT’s support on projects, but local officials have no real say in how the work is done or if it actually meets objectives. Reporters covering MDOT will also experience antagonistic behavior.

But if anyone now thinks that MDOT’s Canal Road Connector project is something that will benefit the Coast, they are misled.

While the Canal Road Connector could be considered a needed road eventually, in light of changes wrought by Hurricane Katrina, and the expected rapid redevelopment of the Coast’s casino and tourism industry,  there surely is a greater need than this project. The East Biloxi Connector at Rodenberg Ave. and Cedar Lake is just that project. MDOT’s director Butch Brown recently told GCN that the Biloxi project is not on the shelf any time soon.

On the surface it would appear that MDOT’s plans would benefit the Port of Mississippi in Gulfport, but even that agency signed on Mayor Brent Warr's list to oppose MDOT’s elevated road plan.

Update: on May 16th, officials with the port rescinded their opposition to MDOT's I-310 Canal Road Connector project. MDOT's Wayne Brown has warned that changes in the plan could delay the project from two to nine years.

Related links:

Which is the Right Road to Recovery? – Sun Herald

Another Lost Decade? Latin America's Growth Failure Continues into the 21st Century

MDOT: Now Gulfport Gets Run Over Too – Clarion Ledger

MDOT’s MultiPlan – Comprehensive MDOT transportation plan . (Very Large File and almost incomprehensible. – Ed)

Gulfport Almost United Against MDOT's Canal Road Connector - GCN

MDOT: A History of Deception - by Royce Highnight