Airport Commission Under Axe? | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Airport Commission Under Axe?

Mississippi Department of Transportation Executive Director Larry "Butch" Brown asked the Jackson City Council and Jackson Mayor Frank Melton Tuesday to pull the city's membership from the Airport Parkway Commission. The decision, if approved by the council, would dissolve the commission, which is dependent upon equal participation from the cities of Flowood, Jackson and Pearl to remain viable. MDOT devised the commission as a means to build a parkway linking downtown Jackson to the airport in Rankin County, empowering it to do the environmental and planning studies and oversee land acquisition for right of way. Brown said the project would cost about $400 million.

Congress earmarked a total of $35 million for the project. The commission spent about $13 million on project engineering and design services and about $15 million on right-of-way acquisition in Rankin County, which amounts to about 40 percent of the acquisition necessary to continue the project. Pearl Mayor Jimmy Foster said right-of-way land acquired in Pearl belongs to the city of Pearl, though Brown said the land the commission acquired technically belongs to MDOT.

"When they acquire it, they're supposed to bring it to us, but they haven't, yet. None of it has been deeded to us, though legally it belongs to MDOT," Brown said.

About $7 million of the originally allocated $35 million remains unspent.

Brown said the commission is no longer useful at this point.

"The Airport Parkway Commission has done what they were supposed to do. The only thing they haven't done yet is find a way to pay for the actual parkway," Brown said. "They have no more money after the $7 million is used for right-of-way purchases. With the kind of Congress we have now, I doubt they'll have any more earmarks for this project. We've asked them to step aside and let MDOT to do this project. They've chosen not to do that."

Brown insists he has no axe to grind with the commission, despite the commission suing MDOT during the course of project development. The commission has a case before Hinds County Chancery Court Judge Patricia Wise regarding MDOT's 2006 decision to re-evaluate the project design.

"We have no problem with the commission except there is no way for them to … fund the development of … this project," Brown said.

Brown said MDOT no longer needs congressional generosity to complete the parkway, explaining that international road-building companies, such as McQuarrie of Australia and Cintra of Spain, are willing to fund the construction and make a profit by designing the parkway as a toll road.

"Every country in the world, except the U.S., builds their highways like this. We're just a Johnny-come-lately," Brown said.

Foster said he had no knowledge of Brown approaching the council.

"I'm not sure what his motives are, but speaking as a parkway commission member, we've moved the project forward … and we can move the project along just the same that MDOT can, either by organizing a toll-road or through some other means," Foster said, though he added that an earlier project study dubbed the toll plan unfeasible.

Flowood Mayor Gary Rhodes said the same private developers contacted the commission with the toll-road plan.

"Those same companies talked to us, but before you can begin to build something you've got to have the right-of-way. Butch evidently doesn't know that," Rhodes said.

Rhodes said the commission is still waiting to go to court in March to prevent MDOT from re-evaluating the route of the parkway. The case has stalled MDOT signing off on some acquisitions, leaving owners in the cold, Rhodes added.

"They stopped the project by not signing the next phase of the contract. We had made acquisition offers to these people, and some of them had moved and we haven't paid them yet. One woman's already bought another house, and we haven't paid her yet because Butch wouldn't sign the contract for the next phase," Rhodes said.

Brown said he was not sure how the dissolution of the commission would affect the court case.

Rhodes added that he was confident that Mayor Melton would not abandon the commission. "I hope (Brown) makes a bunch of presentations, but Frank assured me that he wasn't pulling out of the commission," he said.

The council withheld a vote on the agenda item to learn more.

"I don't have near as much information on this issue as I need," Ward 1 Councilman Jeff Weill told the council.

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