Commissioner pushes new bridge engineering firm

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 11, 2001

[01/11/01] After 70 years as engineering consultants for the U.S. 80 Mississippi River bridge, the Baton Rouge engineering firm HNTB could be replaced.

Vicksburg Bridge Commission members discussed a possible change Wednesday. Raymond Ray, who stepped down as commission chairman in that meeting, suggested that a different firm be hired.

“I have no fault with their service, but I was just wondering if we might consider someone local,” Ray said.

HNTB is today’s successor of the engineering firm that originally designed the bridge in 1926 when it was built as a for-profit venture by private investors. The company is paid for annual inspections of the structure and for recommendations the management commission for the bridge, now owned by Warren County, seeks from time to time.

Most recently, HNTB prepared an estimate of $4 million to repair a pier and a railroad support that have been sinking in tiny amounts since the bridge was built. The firm has also recommended that the bridge, open to trains, remain closed to cars and trucks until those repairs are made.

“We’re sending a lot of money out of Mississippi,” Ray said. “If we can find someone who is qualified locally, maybe we should consider them.”

Another reason he gave was that a local firm could be more accessible to the commission. He recommended the engineering firm ABMB, which is also based out of Baton Rouge, but has offices in Vicksburg and Jackson.

ABMB is also the engineering firm used by Warren County.

Not all of the five commission members agreed that it was time to go shopping for a new engineer.

“Engineers are like doctors,” said Max Reed. “They have their specialties and hiring someone just because they have an engineering firm doesn’t get the job done.”

Patricia Segrest called changing firms a “big step” and asked that the commission table the matter and take more time to investigate options. Commission members agreed to seek proposals from other firms including ABMB and ask them to make presentation at the next meeting.

Separately, Reed asked that the commission request a update from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers regarding a study that began last February. The Corps was contracted to determine the cause of movement in the pier and was expected to take a year to complete.

“If it’s going to take longer and they’re going to need more money, we need to know it,” Reed said.

The roadway of the bridge has been closed since September 1998 when county officials said the concrete was failing.

According to the most recent estimates from the Mississippi Department of Transportation, about 23,000 cars and trucks cross the river on the I-20 bridge daily in 1999. Other than the U.S. 80 bridge in Vicksburg, the nearest routes across the river are 74 miles south in Natchez or 101 miles north in Greenville.

In other actions the commission adopted a policy that requires people wishing to speak before the panel to provide advance notice and be placed on the agenda. The group meets every second Wednesday of the month and will require people to notify the bridge superintendent no later than the Friday before.