Things are about to get real on the Mississippi Gulf Coast — real crowded, that is.
Black Spring Break, one of the largest tourism events in South Mississippi, gets under way Friday, bringing with it thousands of people and the inevitable traffic the festival creates.
With an estimated more than 60,000 attendees in 2017, Biloxi Police Chief John Miller expects this year's crowd for the three-day event to be even bigger.
"Just looking at the concert lineup, which features Lil Wayne from New Orleans, it's probably going to bring in more people this year," Miller said.
The traffic plan
So what does a police chief, who once told the Sun Herald that Black Spring Break is like "fitting 70,000 vehicles into a place that holds 7,000 people," do? For Miller, it's all been about advanced planning.
"We've been meeting and working on this for about a year now," Miller said. "And we have additional police officers who will offer support and help with traffic flow."
And, yes, Miller is expecting traffic to be an issue.
"We're going to drop U.S. Highway 90 to two lanes from Debuys Road to the Interstate 110 exit for all of Friday, Saturday and Sunday," he said. "We may decide to drop it as early as Thursday if we start to see an influx of traffic."
The Gulfport Police Department will drop Highway 90 to two lanes from Cowan Road to Debuys Road to assist with Biloxi's plan. This means that about nine miles of beaches will have only one lane open in each direction for emergency vehicles and to keep traffic moving.
Police may close some intersections at times to keep beachfront traffic moving to the east or the west. If traffic becomes too heavy, police will enact their "venting" plan — sending eastbound drivers to Interstate 110 and westbound drivers north on Cowan Road.
But what about the thousands of people who live in around the Mississippi Coast Coliseum and Convention Center, the headquarters for Black Biloxi Beach weekend? Miller has some advice for them, as well.
"Stay home," he said. "If you can avoid it, get the things that you will need for the weekend and stay home — it's only for one weekend."
"This is not why I bought a house in this area."
Jason Wilson said he bought a home on Balmoral Avenue in Edgewater Park, a neighborhood on the east side of Edgewater Mall, about 13 years ago. He, like many in his neighborhood, are frustrated with the "chaos" he said that Black Spring Break brings.
"I can't just stay home during Black Spring Break," Wilson said. "I am going out of town this year but in the past, it's been extremely difficult getting in and out of my neighborhood, especially because I work in Gulfport and I work crazy hours."
Wilson said his frustrations with the traffic culminated last year when he had difficulty getting home from work.
"I got off of work around 8 p.m. on a Saturday last year and it took me about three hours to get home because there are only two ways in and out of my neighborhood," he said. "I could probably have thrown a rock at my house but I couldn't get there and the police wouldn't let me in even with a parking pass — the scene at Edgewater Mall is total chaos; it looked like 30,000 people partying — this is not why I bought a house in this neighborhood."
But Wilson said there are ways in which the event could improve.
"This thing makes good money but where are the dumpsters and portable toilets and such from the city," he said. "The city needs to support this event like they do other things and help make it successful."
Things to know
Biloxi city has launched a text alert service that will allow for real-time traffic updates during Biloxi Black Weekend, including the annual Spring Fest concert. Text SPBK to 888777, and you will get traffic updates during the event.
In addition, Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi issued an advisory that the White Avenue Gate will be closed 6 p.m. Thursday through 5 a.m. Monday. Visitors must use the Meadow Road Gate, which also will be the temporary visitors center, or the Pass Road Gate, which will have normal hours of operation.
Coliseum Executive Director Matt McDonnell said the venue will open a back road on the property to try and ease traffic congestion.
"We are opening the gate off of Beauvior Road and we will provide an access road across the back of the property that comes up beside Surf Style," McDonnell said. "We do this to try and help people get in and out of the neighborhoods around the Coliseum."
Coast Transit Authority will limit its service during Black Spring Break. The Beachcomber, which runs along Highway 90, will suspend service from 12:35 p.m. on Friday at Edgewater Mall until Monday.
Route 34 on Pass Road will end service at approximately 6:49 p.m. Friday. There will be no service to Eisenhower, C.T. Switzer Road or Edgewater Mall after 12 p.m. on Saturday. Route 34 will stay on Pass Road on Saturday. It will resume its normal service on Sunday, but delays are to be expected.