Ray resigns as bridge panel boss

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 11, 2001

[01/11/01] The first meeting of the new year for the Vicksburg Bridge Commission brought changes for the panel responsible for the U.S. 80 Mississippi River bridge.

Chairman Raymond Ray announced Wednesday that he will no longer serve as the head of the board and that he would not accept another term at the end of his current five-year appointment in July.

“I’m not being presumptuous that you would re-elect me or that Mr. (Richard) George will reappoint me,” Ray said. “But due to personal reasons and health reasons, I am stepping down.”

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Ray, 79, has served on the commission since 1976 and has served as the head of the five-member board through some of the most controversial times of the bridge. Unlike most other public boards, bridge commissioners are paid a stipend and also receive state pension and other benefits.

Ray was chairman in 1997 when a $5.5 million deal was negotiated with Kansas City Southern Railway to purchase the 70-year-old bridge. That began a countywide debate over the fate of the structure that, to some degree, continues.

“This commission has made several decisions that were real tough,” he said to the other members. “And I appreciate that because we thought we were doing the right thing.”

In December, Ray, retired from careers in athletics and as a State Farm Agent, was hospitalized for a heart condition. He said that was the primary factor in his decision to leave the commission when his term is up in July.

The commission elected “Winky” Freeman to replace Ray as chairman. County supervisors will be responsible for appointing a replacement for Ray on the panel.

“Mr. Freeman, I pass you the torch and God bless you,” Ray said.

Freeman said this morning at the Port City Kiwanis Club that he was a little apprehensive about the new position and admitted that he did not know as much about the bridge as his predecessor.

“There’s a lot to learn,” he said.

Freeman is employed with Canadian National Railway and has served on the commission for four years. His term will expire in July 2002.

When asked in what direction he would steer the commission, Freeman said he would continue to follow the same path.

“We’re here to represent the people of Warren County, but we have to use some common sense,” Freeman said.

The new chairman of the commission said he felt that the bridge roadbed was not safe for two-way traffic, but that one-way traffic could still be an option in the future.

He also said that Warren County voters were not really informed adequately nearly a year and a half ago when 59 percent of the voters said in a non-binding referendum that they wanted the bridge opened to traffic.

“A lot of people who voted against the park really assumed it was going to be two-way traffic,” Freeman said.

Since that vote in November 1999, the commission has received three separate engineering reports that have recommended that the bridge remain closed until all repairs are made to the structure and that if the bridge is opened it be limited to one-way traffic.

Freeman said that someday when the bridge is opened again, it will more than likely be limited to one-way traffic going from the Mississippi side of the river to Louisiana.

Commission members are paid $300 a month and the chairman makes $400 a month. Members also receive credit toward state retirement benefits.