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Railroad forces delay of plans to repair bridge

[9/9/04]Plans to repair the roadbed of the U.S. 80 Mississippi River Bridge have come to a grinding halt over objections raised by the railroad company that pays tolls to use the adjacent tracks.

The Vicksburg Bridge Commission voted Wednesday against seeking bids for repairs despite having plans and specification ready to go.

Commission Chairman Max Reed said the project, considered essential to any additional use of the bridge, is being delayed because of legal questions raised by Kansas City Southern Railway.

“They’re objecting to us using the funds to fix that portion of the bridge because it’s not essential to their operation,” Reed said.

Specifically, the railroad company has protested spending the money it pays in tolls for any purpose not directly related to maintaining the bridge for rail traffic.

The rails parallel the concrete roadway, closed to traffic in 1998 when slabs started breaking away.

KCS or predecessor companies have paid per-car tolls since the privately built bridge was opened in 1930. Warren County bought the crossing after World War II and has operated it as a break-even business.

While the contract with KCS doesn’t specify the types of repairs that can be funded, the letter from KCS makes clear the railroad company does not consider repair of the vehicle roadbed ongoing maintenance.

“We’ve got potential (litigation) issues with our tenants if we spend the money,” said Commissioner Bob Moss.

While commission members voted to table bids for the roadbed repairs, they did vote to advertise for bids to repairs to the east approach of the bridge. That portion of the structure has been being pulled away from the Mississippi bank since movement began in the piers that support the main structure.

Both projects, the estimated $1.6 million road deck repairs and the estimated $1 million repair to the east approach, would be funded from the bridge commission’s $6 million in reserves. That money has been built up over several years from KCS and other utility rentals.

The commission also voted to schedule a meeting with representatives from ABMB engineers to discuss plans to convert the part of the bridge in Mississippi to a pedestrian and bicycle park. ABMB first drew up plans in 1999 and will be asked to look at what changes will be needed today, Reed said.

Warren County supervisors voted 3-1 last month to authorize the bridge commission to study the park proposal after bridge commission members said vehicular traffic on the bridge would not be possible. Commission members cited reports from both Louisiana and Mississippi departments of transportation that found the bridge is too narrow and obsolete.

They also say liability on the portion of the bridge in Louisiana would be too high and said no insurance carrier would cover the county-owned span if it is reopened to traffic.

In 1997, KCS offered $5.5 million to buy the bridge from Warren County, but the deal was rejected after an outcry from local residents.

Voters rejected the proposed park idea on a 1999 nonbinding referendum and supervisors voted 4-1 to make repairs and reopen the bridge for two-way traffic, but earlier this year, the bridge commission asked to be removed from under that directive.