One-way traffic on bridge possible, panel says

Published 12:00 am Thursday, November 30, 2000

The commission responsible for the U.S. 80 Mississippi River bridge told county supervisors Wednesday that it will not recommend putting two-way traffic on the bridge, but that one-way traffic could be possible.

A year after the Warren County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 to have the bridge roadway reopened to two-way light vehicular traffic, members of the Vicksburg Bridge Commission were summoned to the courthouse to explain their progress to supervisors.

“I’m not in favor of opening the bridge to traffic because it is unsafe,” said Raymond Ray, chairman of the commission. “If you reopen the bridge with the engineers saying it is unsafe, when somebody gets injured out there, they would own the county.”

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The 70-year-old, county-owned bridge has been closed to cars and trucks since September 1998. In November 1999, when voters were asked what the future of the span should be, 59 percent said it should be reopened.

Since then, three engineering reports have warned of the dangers of opening the bridge to traffic because of its width. The roadway is 18 feet wide while highway standards call for 24-foot roadways on modern bridges.

“With the engineering studies telling us its unsafe for two-way traffic, if we put it back out there, then we’ve been negligent,” said commission member “Winky” Freeman.

Neel-Schaffer Engineers Inc. of Jackson recommended the bridge not be opened to two-way traffic and would not recommend opening it for one-way. The problem with one-way traffic, according to the report, is that it would not save any time compared with using the Interstate 20 bridge.

When operating, the bridge’s roadway was used mostly for local traffic between Vicksburg and Delta, La.

The options for one-way traffic are to have the bridge opened one-way all the time or to have traffic alternate. One example is to have traffic switch every 30 minutes, but that would mean a wait for anyone wanting to use the bridge.

“There is a possibility for use of the roadway surface,” Freeman told supervisors. “It may or may not be for vehicular traffic.”

In the referendum a year ago, 33.8 percent of voters favored a proposal to transform the bridge into a pedestrian and bicycle park using a $1.7 million federal grant. That plan was dropped after the election.

“The bottom line is what?” asked District 2 Supervisor Michael Mayfield. “Where do we go from here? What do we do next?’

“The bottom line as I see it is not to spend a lot of money repairing the roadbed until we can find out what’s happening (with the pier),” Ray said.

A separate study is under way to determine the cause of the shifting of a pier that has shifted about 3 inches since 1997. The survey by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which began in February, was expected to take about a year. The most recent report from the Corps indicated that the pier has not moved any since monitoring of the bank began.

The Baton Rouge engineering firm HNTB estimated the minimum cost of repairs to the road deck at $746,750 not including the cost of maintenance over the next five years or repairs to the pier. Repairs to the pier and a railroad support that has been sinking since the bridge was built was estimated at $4 million.

Any repairs to the bridge would have to come from the commission’s reserves, about $5.5 million now.

“What is the purpose of having the engineering study about the pier if we know that we’re not going to open the bridge?” asked District 3 Charles Selmon.

“Very simple, you’re obligated to operate that bridge for the railroad,” Ray said.

Since 1928, Kansas City Southern Railway and previous rail companies have leased the tracks and paid per-car tolls to support bridge operations and maintenance. Currently about 16 trains run through Vicksburg every day to cross the river on their way to Mexico or back east.

The bridge is the only railroad crossing of the Mississippi River between Memphis and Baton Rouge, and KCS pays about $900,000 per year in tolls.

The lease with the railroad extends to the year 2927.

In 1997, a $5.5 million offer from KCS to purchase the bridge began the debate over the fate of the structure.

Supervisors took no action Wednesday regarding the bridge.

In other matters the board:

Awarded a $97,879 contract to Lampkin Construction for an erosion-control project along Newit Vick Drive subject to approval from the National Resources Conservation Service. If approved, funding from the conservation service will cover 80 percent of the cost, with the county making up the other 20 percent. The project is expected to be completed by March.

Received six bids for a project to connect the new River Region Hospital construction site with municipal sewer. A Community Development Block Grant from the state will fund the $900,000 project. The new facility across from Sherman Avenue Elementary School is expected to be completed in May 2002.

Authorized six driveway permits, five temporary easements and repairs on two school bus turnarounds.

Approved Dec. 25 and 26 for Christmas holidays for county employees and Jan. 1 for New Year’s.

Accepted for information a petition from residents along Red Oak and Buford drives to have the roads maintained by the county. Both are private roads and would have to meet county guidelines and be deeded to the county before being accepted.

Supervisors will meet again at 9 a.m. Monday at the courthouse.