Bridge’s fate to be discussed again

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 22, 2004

Bridge superintendent Herman Smith, right, and employee William Byrd measure the width of the space near the toll booth of the U.S. 80 Mississippi River bridge this morning.(Melanie Duncan Thortis The Vicksburg Post)

[4/22/04]The debate over the future of the U.S. 80 Mississippi River bridge has come full circle nearly five years after Warren County voters expressed a desire to have the span reopened to vehicles.

The slate is now clean with Vicksburg Bridge Commission members, who answer to the Warren County Board of Supervisors, reviewing alternatives for the bridge first presented in 1999.

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Wednesday, they agreed to come back in three weeks with a list of any new ideas. From that list, commissioners plan to make recommendations to the supervisors about the bridge’s fate.

“We’re right back where we were five years ago when they put that nonbinding referendum on the November ballot,” said Dorothy Stewart, a long-time advocate for reopening the roadbed of the bridge. “And I think the citizens of Warren County are being sold down the river.”

To formally free the commission to study other options, supervisors voted 4-1 Monday to rescind their 1999 directive to get the 74-year-old bridge reopened to two-way traffic. The directive followed a nonbinding referendum in which most county voters said they wanted the bridge usable by cars and trucks. No explicit steps toward fulfilling the directive have been taken due to deterioration of the concrete roadbed, which led to the closure order initially, and statements that its narrowness makes the roadway “functionally obsolete.”

Commissioners say they haven’t ruled out two-way traffic for the bridge, but want to consider other uses, including a pedestrian and bicycle park idea rejected nearly 2-1 by voters.

“We want to consider all the options,” said chairman Max Reed. “We don’t want to be accused of overlooking anything.”

Other options discussed Wednesday included one-way traffic, emergency traffic only and remaining closed.

Commission members did not bring up selling the bridge, a third option on the 1999 referendum.

In 1997, Kansas City Southern Railway offered $5.5 million for the county-owned bridge, but public outcry stopped that sale. At the time, the railroad’s use of the bridge was light, but rail traffic has greatly increased since passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

KCS officials have not publicly commented about the bridge since opposing the park proposal in 1999, but they have publicly affirmed the purchase offer has been rescinded. That indicates the company, the No. 1 customer of bridge operations, is no longer interested in owning the only rail crossing on the river between Memphis and Baton Rouge.

Meanwhile, problems have continued to pop up with the bridge including shifting piers. New long-term repair estimates have topped $13 million.

“I don’t think we have all the information we need right now to make a recommendation to the supervisors,” said Commissioner “Winky” Freeman.

The privately built bridge is operated like a business by the county under special Congressional authority. The bridge commission collects per car tolls from the railroad and utility companies for use of the crossing and uses that money for the bridge maintenance.