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Oxford Mayor Hopes to Secure Funds for Local Road, Infrastructure Projects

By Alyssa Schnugg
News editor

Oxford Mayor Robyn Tannehill is going to Jackson Wednesday to speak with state leaders about Oxford’s infrastructure needs, including the intersection on University Avenue and Highway 7. Image from Google.

Not unlike Charles Dicken’s literary character Oliver, Mayor Robyn Tannehill is on her way to Jackson today to ask state legislators for “some more.” But in this case, it’s not porridge she wants, it’s money.

On Tuesday during the Mayor’s Report at the Oxford Board of Aldermen meeting, Tannehill said she was headed to Jackson Wednesday to ask for more funding to improve the dangerous University Avenue and Highway 7 intersection – again.

During the 2018 Legislative Session, the city of Oxford asked for funding for the intersection. The city asked for $3 million and was granted $750,000. Tannehill said the Mississippi Department of Transportation is in the final design stages of completing the design for the intersection; however, there is no funding available for the project.

Recently, Tannehill said while the city is grateful for the $750,000, it is by far not enough and she will be once again, asking state leaders for their help in funding the project over the next several years.

“We don’t believe this is an unrealistic request especially since the city of Oxford received no funding in the 2019 Bond Bill or from the funds distributed from the BP Settlement,” Tannehill stated on her Facebook page recently.

Tannehill said Oxford has hit walls in the past to secure funding help from federal and state resources as well as MDOT.

“I believe that is in part because of the reputation Oxford has for being a community that takes care of itself and the national acclaim we have received as a ‘Great Small Town,’” she stated. “I also think it is in part due to the fact that we have not built relationships and we simply haven’t asked. Over the past two and a half years, I have been committed to taking our story to DC with a list of priorities and funding needs. I am hopeful we will see the fruits of our labor in the near future.”

Oxford’s biggest challenge is collecting taxes from about 25,000 citizens and having to provide infrastructure for a town that can see 60,000 to 100,000 people in town during football weekends and special events.

“It is hard to make those numbers work,” she said. “You cannot tax 25,000 people enough to support the infrastructure needs of our community. If we are to remain one of the primary economic drivers of north Mississippi, our state and federal governments are going to have to invest in our infrastructure.”

Oxford recently hosted newly-elected Northern District Transportation Commissioner John Caldwell, giving him a tour and discussing transportation needs in the city.

“I believe he understands the infrastructure challenges we are facing,” Tannehill said last week.

The city has recently applied for a BUILD Grant to help fund the Oxford Central Corridor, which addresses traffic issues on West Jackson Avenue – one of the most heavily traveled roadways in north Mississippi, according to MDOT traffic figures.

An Insider’s View

Funding for roads and bridges can come from several sources – federal funding, Legislative funding to MDOT and Legislative earmarks from Bond Bills.

Former Mississippi House Rep. Jay Hughes, who represented Oxford and District 12 for four years until his term ended Dec. 31, 2019, said that while most funding approvals are tied to need, some projects get funded because of political connections and favors.

“Federal monies completely bypass the legislature, and is usually awarded, like everything else, through political connections and favors,” he told Hottytoddy.com recently. “MDOT funding, directed by the Transportation Commissioners, is tied to need, but also political favors. Earmarks in Bond Bills is a result of old fashioned ass-kissing, which I was never trained to do.”

While some Oxford rumors have whispered that Hughes’ ability to anger his fellow representatives during his time in office might have caused some Oxford bill requests to put into “File 13,” Hughes said that while he did upset some people by “shining the light on the games and insider deals,” Oxford’s issues in securing funding for roads and infrastructure has been an ongoing problem for years, well before he entered the political arena.

“Sisk and Highway 7 were problems long before I ever got to Jackson,” he said. “And we couldn’t secure the funding as a city back then. Highway 7 problems and funding dates back to when my predecessor, Brad Mayo, was still in high school.”

Working Together

The city has taken to finding creative funding mechanisms to help with infrastructure when it could not secure help from MDOT or the state Legislature. For instance, the three roundabouts and improvements to the Sisk Avenue and Highway 7 intersection were done through TIF financing, where the developer pays for the improvements and is repaid by the city through sales taxes that are collected in the Oxford Commons development.

New roads like the George “Pat” Patterson Parkway, formerly known as Oxford Loop Extension, and the F.D. Buddy East Parkway, formerly known as the Sisk Avenue Extension, were funded jointing by Oxford and Lafayette using bonds. The State Legislators did eventually grant $3 million for both roads after the University of Mississippi lobbied for the funds. The two roads cost about $14 million.

However, some projects are just too costly for the city, or Lafayette County to fund on their own.

Highway 7 Widening

The widening of Highway 7 to four lanes from Belk Boulevard to the Highway 7/9 split was on MDOT’s table nine years ago until MDOT announced in 2015 the project was put on hold.

Many property owners were contacted about MDOT purchasing property for rights-of-way, and some city utilities were moved. Funding had already been set in place for land acquisition and moving utilities. However, the more substantial chunk of the estimated funds needed to begin construction is still not available.

The cost for the four-lane highway was estimated at $40,259,235 in 2012 when MDOT first began notifying property owners about the widening project.

Despite serious and sometimes fatal wrecks occurring on Highway 7 South almost daily, the plans for widening the highway remain dead in the water. However, MDOT announced in 2018 plans to eventually build a roundabout at the Highway 7/9 split.

MDOT has approved a mill and overlay project for Highway 6 in Oxford. Bids are now being accepted and are expected to be opened and one approved at the end of the month.

While city and county officials continue to seek help in funding necessary road improvements to ensure the safety of its citizens, at least there will be fewer potholes along Highway 6 in the near future.

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