Cyclists peddling old bridge plan again

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 19, 2001

[12/19/01] Two years after Warren County voters said they wanted the U.S. 80 Mississippi River bridge reopened to traffic, the concept of converting the span into a bicycle park is again taking center stage.

Representatives of the Mississippi River Trail organization met with local government leaders Tuesday to present a plan to use the 71-year-old bridge for a bicycle route. In 1999, a countywide debate over the fate of the bridge led to a non-binding referendum on the November ballot when 59 percent of those casting ballots said reopen the bridge to light vehicular traffic over converting it into a park or selling it.

“The Mississippi River Trail is not here for a conflict,” said attorney Landy Teller, a local member of the organization. “We’re here to promote economic development.”

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The Mississippi River Trail organization is a non-profit group that represents 10 states along the Mississippi River from Minnesota to New Orleans. The group is working to create a bicycle route along the river from beginning to end.

Susan Jones, a member of the organization from Memphis, said the U.S. 80 Bridge in Vicksburg is one of two routes they want to use to cross the river.

“Each is an intricate part to the success of the Mississippi River Trail,” Jones said.

The other bridge is in St. Louis along the old Route 66 that runs from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans. There the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge has already been converted into a bicycle and pedestrian trail using federal funds like the TEA-21 funds the Vicksburg Bridge Commission had secured for the bridge here.

Because the federal funds were not used on the bridge here, the money was used on similar projects in other Mississippi communities.

Mike Murray, president of the Mississippi River Trail organization and resident of St. Louis, said the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge had been a success and has led to other regional plans for development.

“This is happening all along the Mississippi River and I’d like to encourage Vicksburg to be a part of it,” Murray said.

After the vote two years ago, the Warren County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 to reopen the bridge to light traffic spending whatever it would cost to make it safe. Since that time, structural problems have delayed repairs which were ordered in October.

Supervisors voted to approve a request by the commission that maintains the bridge to declare an emergency and spend about $220,000 to repair the support that has shifted about 6 inches.

The repairs will start this year and take about two months, but have no relation to the $2.8 million estimate to repair the roadbed so cars and trucks can cross again.

Dorothy Stewart, who has been outspoken about reopening the bridge since 1999, said she was not opposed to using the bridge part time for bikes as long as it was also opened for some traffic.

“We need to grow and we need change, but don’t just take it away from us,” Stewart said.

Mayor Laurence Leyens, who supported the park in 1999, said he also felt any plans for the bridge should include emergency traffic.

“I think there is an economic opportunity here and we can provide emergency traffic across the river,” Leyens said. “But do something, don’t do nothing.”

Ray Duncan, a spokesman for the group that pushed for the park concept in 1999, said that because of the narrow width of the bridge, a bicycle route would be a good way for the community to get some use out of the bridge which has been closed for three years.

“The problem is that the bridge is functionally obsolete,” he said.

Richard George, president of the Board of Supervisors, said that reopening the bridge to traffic was still a possibility, but that safety and liability would be the two main factors in determining when or how it will be used.

“I think the bridge commission is open-minded, but they are in a mode of restraint now,” he said.

The bridge is maintained out of a fund that has built up over the years from the per-car toll paid by Kansas City Southern Railway for use of the tracks that run along side the roadbed.

The county-owned bridge was purchased from its private owner in 1947 for $7 million. The structure is operated and maintained by the bridge commission, set up by special legislation of Congress which prevents the county from using tax dollars for repairs