LAUREL, MS (AP) Work is under way to eliminate the deadly Interstate 59 S-curve — more than two decades after highway officials first considered relocating low-income housing that blocked improvements.
The winding I-59 stretch, which has claimed the lives of at least 13 people in the last decade, is known by most area residents, visitors and even truckers who use the interstate route through Laurel.
“That curve was not laid out right to begin with,” said Doug Wright, a trucker who hauls water pipe from Tennessee to Mississippi and Louisiana — driving through Laurel approximately three times a week.
“It doesn’t bank right and when you’ve got a top heavy load and you hit that curve it’s going to shift and you’re going over.”
The city of Laurel borrowed $36 million last year to fund the project; work is expected to start in late summer and end in 2009. The Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) will repay the city’s loan.
State law allows cities or counties to fast-track road projects by borrowing money to cover the costs. Federal and state dollars repay the loan.
“It’s dangerous and deadly, and I’m so glad we’re finally doing something about it,” Laurel Mayor Melvin Mack said. “When they realign the road, the area that’s left will be good for development.
“Right now that area looks like a ghost town with the buildings gone and no street lights,” Mack said. “But that will change as development moves into the area.”
Efforts to realign the curve started in 1985.
State highway officials approached the Laurel Housing Authority about moving 72 units of low-income housing — clearing a route for the realignment, said Kay Guy, director of the Housing Authority.
Plans called for the road to be straightened between 16th and Fourth avenues, with two new Beacon Street exits.
“Once the new road is opened, we’ll take the old road down to ground level,” said Red Stringfellow, resident engineer of MDOT. “That will free up several acres of space for other uses.”
Wayne Brown, the southern district transportation commissioner, said the S-curve originally was part of a planned four-lane highway in Laurel. When the interstate highway was built in the late 1950s, he said, it incorporated the planned highway.
The I-59 S-curve weaves around existing low-income housing and the South Central Regional Medical Center.
“It would have been better back then to move the hospital or the housing complex,” Brown said. “I don’t think anyone envisioned what would happen in later years.”
Officials possibly couldn’t afford to build a straight road if they had to buy property from the hospital or the housing complex, Brown said, adding that “I guess they thought half a road was better than no road.”
Crews continue work to remove the final commercial buildings at the I-59 Beacon Street exit. Now all that remains in the path of the new road is Blue’s Chevron and a vacant building that once housed a rental business.
Removal of the 72 public housing units took place in 2003, Guy said, at a cost of $6.3 million. Housing authorities first heard the idea more than two decades ago; nothing happened until recently.
Richard Robbins, project manager of Hilton Construction of Laurel, is overseeing the demolition of the final buildings in the path of the new interstate highway. Work should be completed in the next 60 days, he said.
Guy said although several trucks have overturned on the curve, some landing within inches of an apartment, no tenant was ever hurt. One time, she said, a car even ended up in one of the housing units.
“Then, I worried about South Central Regional Medical Center and what if it had to be evacuated because of a truck wreck,” she said.
The hospital is located on the southbound lane across the interstate from the housing units.
Interstate signs require drivers to reduce their speed from 70 mph to 60 mph, then 50 mph and finally 40 mph at the curve. But Wright said many drivers don’t notice the lower speed limits until they reach the curve. Then it’s too late.
“When you start stopping with a heavy load and you hit that curve it’s all the ingredients for a tragedy,” he said. “If you want to keep it safe, they ought to start the big signs two miles out warning what’s ahead and why you need to slow down.”