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Local bridges mostly safe, officials say after closings

(11/23/03)Bridges across Vicksburg and Warren County are in good shape, officials say, despite reports that two bridges have failed since the first of the year and two others have been closed due to serious problems.

A bridge at Freetown Road collapsed after a rain storm in April and a bridge on Possum Hollow Road was closed following the same storm. Bridges on Timberlane Place and Belva Drive were also closed after inspections last week.

Warren County’s engineer, John McKee, said the failures of those bridges could not be predicted and all bridges in the city and county get inspected at least every two years.

“Every other year, we look at all the bridges eligible for State Aid funding or LSBP (Local System Bridge Program),” McKee said.

If those inspections turn up potential problems with bridges or if a bridge has a low-sufficiency rating, those structures are subjected to close inspections every year. McKee said his office is a little more than halfway through with this year’s inspections of all bridges in the city and county and plans to be finished by March.

“I would be willing to bet you almost all, if not all, of them are timber-piling bridges,” he said. “You know what wood does when you soak it and dry it and soak it and dry it over time. It rots and becomes structurally unsound.”

McKee said from time to time, situations develop such as on Timberlane Place, which the Warren County Board of Supervisors dealt with last week. The bridge had a high-sufficiency rating, but it had a set of pilings that could not be seen. A headwall on the face of the pilings came off, revealing that some the unseen pilings were in such a condition that rendered the bridge unsafe and in need of repair.

But, McKee said, the inspection system is designed to catch such things as the Timberlane Place bridge and the one on Belva Drive, which the City of Vicksburg closed last week.

“Our bridges are old,” said City Engineer James “Bubba” Rainer.

“Most of our infrastructure is old, and many of our bridges are over 50 years old,” he said.

Rainer said his office keeps a close eye on bridges that are rated low and submits them for replacement as soon as funding is available. The bridge on Belva Road, which was rated critical at its last inspection, was already scheduled for replacement next year.

But, McKee said, there are times when a bridge fails and no number of inspections will predict those failures. The bridge over Clear Creek on Freetown Road is one of those.

“We were on that bridge with heavy equipment the day before” it failed in April, he said, explaining Warren County Highway Department crews were working to repair erosion in the area.

Not long after the crew finished about 11 that night, the creek bank sloughed off, taking part of the bridge with it.

The county is putting together an emergency project to replace the bridge. The project was originally planned so that the county could receive money from the Federal Highway Administration. However, just days before supervisors were to open quotes and award a contract, federal officials notified them the agency had made an error and the project was not eligible for federal funds. McKee’s office then began work to redo the project as a Mississippi Department of Transportation State Aid Division project.

However, while that work was still in progress Friday afternoon, Richard George, president of the Warren County Board of Supervisors, said the county had just received a call from federal highway officials saying they had reversed their position and Warren County will now be eligible for federal reimbursement on the Freetown Road bridge. As a result, supervisors will open quotes Dec. 9 and possibly award a contract.

McKee said as bridges come up for replacement, they are replaced according to today’s standards and those standards do not allow timber piling.

“They are all concrete and steel now,” he said.

Overall, McKee said the bridges in the city and county are in good shape and those with low-sufficiency ratings are being watched closely. And those sufficiency ratings consider more factors than just the condition of the pilings. They include width and the angles at which the roads approach.

“I think our bridges are in reasonable condition compared with other cities across the state,” said Mayor Laurence Leyens.