MDOT's odd man out

GULFPORT - Dick Hall is a bit of a windmill-tilter at the Mississippi Department of Transportation.

The central district transportation commissioner finds himself the odd man out among the three men who oversee the department, at odds with Wayne Brown in the south and Bill Minor in the north. They side with Executive Director Butch Brown, and Hall, speaking Tuesday at the Gulfport Business Club, disagreed again with the way they're running things.

Specifically, he disagreed with the way they've handled the Canal Road Connector, which would link the state port at Gulfport to Interstate 10. Hall admitted when he last spoke at the club in 2003, he thought the road should be elevated.

"The process is supposed to work where MDOT comes up with suggestions for infrastructure," Hall said. "We suggest alternative routes, we suggest alternative structures and then we go to a public hearing process. The whole point is to get the public input.

"Once we receive that, we study it and decide what to do. The solution is not always to circle the wagons and defend it no matter what our idea was. In my opinion, too often we do that at the Mississippi Department of Transportation."

MDOT has decided to build the first half of the project north of 28th Street before deciding whether to build the rest at ground level, and Wayne Brown was at Tuesday's meeting to explain their thinking.

Hall feels their justification is lacking.

"'If you don't want it that way, we just won't build it.' The federal government has approved it as we've designed it, and that's true," Hall said, "but I believe the federal government will approve it if we re-design it."

He touched on a wide range of transportation topics, touting his support for local-option sales taxes that could fund specific projects. He also said he thought toll roads had a better chance than ever of getting through the state legislature next session.

Hall also spoke about the state port itself, saying it required more funding. He said he says it all over the state, too, not just in Gulfport.

The port has to compete against New Orleans, Mobile and Tampa, Fla., ports that get more state support than Gulfport.

"Now is the time to build that thing the way it should be built," he said. "I am a fiscal conservative and I've had 30 years of government record to stand on. I don't believe in spending money, but I do believe in investing money.

"... The state of Mississippi has to give that kind of support. If we're not going to do that, if we're going to -pardon my French - half-ass it, we might as well not do it."