Tourism board backs park idea for old bridge

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 23, 2004

[07/23/04] The Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau is backing a proposal to convert the county-owned U.S. 80 Mississippi River Bridge into a park for pedestrians and cyclists in the hopes that it will bring more tourists to the city.

The bureau’s board of directors voted Thursday night to support the recommendation that came a day earlier from the Vicksburg Bridge Commission to create a park on the 74-year-old bridge. The bridge commission is seeking approval from Warren County supervisors for the plan.

“It’s been done all over the country,” said VCVB board Chairman Eric Biedenharn. “It’s not a novel idea.”

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The tourism board voted unanimously and directed the executive director, Emy Bullard Wilkinson, to draft a resolution to be sent to the county board of supervisors. Bobby Bailess, who is a member of the VCVB board and is the attorney for the bridge commission, abstained from the vote.

This is the second time in five years that the bridge commission has sought to convert the span into a park. In 1999, supervisors called for a public vote on the issue on a non-binding referendum.

Voters then rejected the park idea by nearly 2-1 and supervisors voted 4-1 to reopen the bridge. Since then, concerns about the bridge’s condition and safety of vehicles have been raised. But the biggest concern has been the issue of liability.

Under Mississippi law, the county is protected by a $500,000 cap on civil lawsuits, but in Louisiana, where more than half of the bridge is located, there are no tort claims limits.

“There’s just no way that bridge will ever have traffic on it again,” said VCVB member Curt Follmer.

The bridge has been closed to public traffic since 1998 when chunks of concrete began falling from the bridge’s underside at an alarming rate. Most recently, the bridge commission has been looking at plans to replace about three-fourths mile of the road bed, about a $2 million project that could take up to two years.

The commission’s proposal is to create a park on the Mississippi side of the bridge, about 1,200 feet, for pedestrians and bicycles. The previous proposal to convert the entire bridge into a park called for an 8-foot bicycle path, a 4-foot pedestrian path and a 6-foot recreational area with benches and landscaping.

The plan also calls for a protective screen to separate the park from the railroad tracks that run parallel to the roadway. It was estimated that the park would cost about $2 million in 1999.

County supervisors have not said when they will vote on the commission’s proposal, but no work toward a park can be done until approved by the board.