County expected to OK study for park on bridge

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 26, 2004

[8/11/04]Monday will likely see Warren County supervisors authorize the Vicksburg Bridge Commission to study the feasibility of a park and biking trail on the Old U.S. 80 Bridge.

Supervisors also discussed a proposal made last week by members of the Warren County Port Commission to rehire the port director as a part-time employee or consultant now that he has officially retired.

The bridge commission voted July 21 to ask supervisors for permission to continue the study of converting part of the 74-year-old bridge over the Mississippi River into a park for pedestrians and cyclists.

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The bridge was opened in 1930 as the only rail and highway crossing of the river between Memphis and Baton Rouge. The county eventually bought the bridge, and it was rendered obsolete by the opening of the Interstate 20 bridge in the 1970s and changes in federal highway and bridge safety rules. The county closed the bridge to all motor vehicle traffic in 1998, leaving the bridge used only as a rail crossing.

The idea of a park was first proposed in 1999 but was rejected by a 60 percent vote in a nonbinding referendum.

Earlier this year the commission proposed converting only the Mississippi part of the bridge to a cycling and walking park. The Louisiana part would not be included because of insurance concerns.

“This is not a recommendation from the bridge commission to turn the bridge into a park,” said District 1 Supervisor David McDonald. “This is a recommendation from the bridge commission to look at the feasibility of turning the bridge into a park.”

He said the study is part of a process.

“They are saying of all these options … the first one was two-way traffic, but that’s out. Insurance, engineering studies, functional obsolescence, all of that rules (traffic) out,” he said. “We come down to the next one and the next one is the park. Now, they’re going to study that and see if it’s feasible to put a park on the bridge and, if it is feasible, what it would cost, where you would park, what kind of safety measures you would have to take and all of that.”

District 5 Supervisor Richard George said the practicality of any option may well be the dictating factor.

Charles Selmon, board president and District 3 supervisor, warned other supervisors the public will perceive a board vote to authorize the feasibility study as approval for a park.

My vote is a yes (on the feasibility study), but it will need to be explained,” said District 4 Supervisor Carl Flanders.

“I think we would do more good in the long run to communicate, ideally as a board unanimously, that nonemergency traffic on that bridge is no longer an option,” Flanders added.

In a separate discussion, County Administrator Rick Polk explained that the Public Employees Retirement System likely will determine whether the Port Commission handles Jimmy Heidel’s retirement and his returning part time or as a consultant.

“If you are a part-time employee of a covered agency, and that’s going to be the key word, it spells out that you can work half time for half the salary you were making,” Polk said.

George said he believes the commission needs a full-time office/administrative person to handle paperwork; a full-time field person to oversee the operation and maintenance of county-owned property at the E.W. Haining Industrial Center and the Ceres Research and Industrial Interplex, and a full-time director with industrial development contacts and the time to recruit industries for the community.

“The facilities operation needs attention and going to a half-time, part-time director is not my idea of an improvement,” George said. “Economic development is certainly not a part-time endeavor.”