Amite County Officials Have Road Worries

LIBERTY, MS (AP) — The Amite County countryside rolls over 732 square miles and has sought-after timber and oil and natural gas reserves.

         The county's road system is already used to big trucks. But now, with the busy Tuscaloosa Marine Shale oil play, development has begun to enter a fever pitch. The Tuscaloosa Marine Shale formation is located in southwest Mississippi and central Louisiana.

         And with the development comes more traffic.

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         At least three locations in the county where oil-related companies are breaking ground, county officials fear there could be a looming danger to the safety of motorists.

         The problem is the highway access points, also known as inlets, where large rigs pull in and out, just off the highway.

         The inlets in question are located just below the crests of hills, making visibility for vehicles traveling near them difficult.

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         The size of the big rigs, frequency of their travel and the relatively slow period it takes to get them up to speed is an issue of concern, said Amite County Chancery Clerk Ronnie Taylor.

         "These spots are almost begging for problems. There will be accidents, maybe the first day even," he said. "They could be horrific given the size of the vehicles and how long it takes them to pick up speed."

         Two areas of concern for county officials are along Mississippi Highway 24 just east of downtown Liberty. Midway up an upslope on the way toward McComb, there's a gravel inlet just before Ludie Bates Road. From the vantage point of the inlet, it's impossible to see what's coming just over the hill until the last second. Driving west into town, the inlet appears only once a vehicle has reached the top of the hill.

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         Just as the hill begins a slope downward heading east, another inlet appears on the left-hand side. This will be the site of a future truck yard.

         "This is already a heavily traveled road, and it's had a history of being a dangerous road. There's no question that allowing companies to stay where they are here, will add to the problem," said Amite County Emergency Management Director Grant McCurley.

         After recently examining the two inlets on Highway 24, McCurley drove down Mississippi Highway 568 toward another access point that has county officials concerned.

         The danger is prevalent when McCurley comes to a stop just west of Gillsburg.

         Like the ones off Highway 24, this one also is just before the summit of a steep hill.

         Two stakes with white flags have been marked enough distance away from one another to allow rigs to both enter and exit at the same time. A series of stakes with orange flags leads into the woods; this marks the inlet.

         McCurley waits for a truck to top the hill and head down toward the inlet. Pointing toward the truck he says, "You can see the problem. It's already impossible to see over the hill. Now imagine at night or even worse at dawn or dusk when there are no headlights."

         "We are worried about the safety of residents and workers out here. That's the bottom line," he said.

         For every new development on county roadways, the board of supervisors signs a right of way permit, and checks factors such as obstruction or topography.

         When it comes to state-owned roads, however, such as Highway 24 and Highway 568, the Mississippi Department of Transportation approves company permits.

         MDOT spokesman Kenny Foote said officials look at several criteria before approving highway access points. Foote said MDOT does a site survey with company representatives for each route before issuing a permit.

         "We typically do a run-through — check utility lines, tree limbs, street lights, bridge capacity, the width of roads, number of lanes and road construction or maintenance," he said.

         The pitch and the location of a particular inlet were not identified as one of the criteria MDOT uses. Foote suggested county supervisors contact companies themselves with their concerns.

         McCurley said he has raised similar concerns to company officials on county-owned roads. In all cases, he said, they have relocated to what the board considers to be a safer area. Often, this can mean less than a mile or so, but mainly further down the road from the top or bottom of a hill, or around a bend.

         For their part, supervisors said they have alerted MDOT before with their concerns but have not received an answer. Work on all three areas continues, leaving the board grasping at straws — and concerned.

         "These roads are already dangerous. Why make it worse? That's what we would like to know," Taylor said.

         In the meantime, the board will work closely with law enforcement to do everything they can to minimize the threat, McCurley said.

         "It's about the safety of our residents and workers here. That's what the bottom line is," he said.

         – by Justin Vicory with the Enterprise-Journal

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