By Alyssa Schnugg
Local and state government officials are getting serious about securing funding to improve Highway 7.
Representatives from the seven counties that the highway runs through met with Mississippi Transportation Commissioner John Caldwell Wednesday to discuss forming a coalition to gain the attention of federal representatives in hopes of procuring funds for improvements.
The meeting was based at Oxford City Hall; however, the meeting was also held virtually.
Caldwell said that while each county has its own needs concerning Highway 7, it will be easier to gain federal funds if efforts are presented as one united project.
“They (federal government) don’t want to hear about small projects,” Caldwell said “MDOT doesn’t want to hear about small projects. They want to see what can be done that helps the most amount of people.”
Highway 7 runs from the Tennessee state line in Benton County to Belzoni, Mississippi. It travels approximately 168 miles serving Humphreys, Leflore, Carroll, Grenada, Yalobusha, Lafayette, Marshall and Benton counties.
Caldwell said Highway 7 needs to gain the attention of state and federal leaders.
“We have to find a way to get Highway 7 some more attention and some more money,” he said. “Our mission is to get it moved up on everyone’s priority list.”
Caldwell wants to form a coalition of private and public partners to increase awareness, show need, show benefits of improving the highway and then seek state and federal financial support.
Wednesday’s meeting involved mostly local government officials – county supervisors, mayors, House representatives, and other county representatives.
“We also need to bring in business owners … and farmers,” Caldwell said. “A business owner who employs 350 people can do a lot to gain attention.”
Highway 7 is a significant route in Mississippi that connects with several notable places, like the Belzoni, the catfish capital of the world; the historic Mississippi Valley State University in Itta Bena; Grenada, Enid and Sardis lakes; the University of Mississippi; Holly Springs National Park; Rust College and more.
The first step in forming the coalition is to give it a name, or brand. At the end of the meeting, several people offered to be on a committee to help find a name for the coalition and create a joint statement for the coalition.
“There is a better chance for funding when everyone agrees on the projects,” Caldwell said. “When we all come together, this coalition will be a pretty good force to be reckoned with.”
The group did not address specifics of the projects that will be discussed at future meetings of the new coalition.
In Lafayette County, the widening of Highway 7 has been a priority for many years.
Close to 10 years ago, MDOT announced plans to widen Highway 7 to four lanes from Belk Boulevard to the Highway 7/9 split.
Many property owners were contacted about MDOT purchasing property for rights-of-way, and a few utilities were moved; however, in 2015, MDOT announced the project had stalled due to a lack of funding.
In 2018, MDOT announced it would be building a roundabout at the split. Caldwell said Wednesday that the project could be let out for bids in the late spring or summer of this year.