Bridge panel to pursue park despite suit

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 10, 2004

[12/9/04]Commissioners who oversee the U.S. 80 Mississippi River Bridge said Wednesday that litigation with Kansas City Southern Railway is likely, but that they will continue to pursue plans for a public park on the roadway adjacent to the span’s train tracks.

The Vicksburg Bridge Commission closed its doors for discussion of a November letter from the rail company that threatens legal action if plans for the park are not dropped. Commission members said they took no action regarding the letter, but said before going into the closed session there are many open issues between the commission and the railroad company that could lead to court.

Under state law, commission meetings are open to the public. Closure is allowed, the statute says, for “strategy sessions with respect to pending litigation.”

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“It’s not potential litigation. It’s definite litigation,” said Bob Moss, a member of the five-member citizen panel appointed by the Warren County Board of Supervisors to manage the county-owned bridge.

The KCS letter, sent to the commission, supervisors and others, explains opposition to a pedestrian and bicycle park over the river. The five-page letter says KCS has a say in the decision because its 999-year lease agreement requires, at a minimum, the company be consulted about any planned changes.

“If the commission persists in going forward with developing plans to modify the use of the bridge, the railroad will seek whatever legal and equitable remedies it has available,” wrote Betty Collins, attorney for KCS.

The Bridge Commission has not committed to any plan to convert the bridge, but voted last month to hire local engineers with ABMB to update their 1999 plans for a park. Any plans to convert the bridge would also require approval by supervisors.

The letter from KCS is just one in a series of communications between the railroad company and the bridge commission over several issues, including a proposed rate increase, maintenance of the railroad tracks and billing, repairs to the road deck of the bridge and funding for that work.

According to Bobby Bailess, the attorney for the bridge commission, any of those issues could end in litigation or arbitration as described in the lease with the railroad company.

“Tell them if they want to sue to get after it or get in line,” said commission member Ray Wade.

KCS or its predecessors have leased the railroad portion of the bridge since it was built and have paid a per-car toll. Today, that toll is about $4 per car, but the bridge commission voted in June to seek a $10 per car increase.

The railroad company objected to that increase and according to their lease if a new rate cannot be negotiated then the process would go into arbitration. The lease is not clear on how other disputes are settled opening the door for court action.

The bridge was built by a private contract and sold to Warren County in 1947. It has been operated as a business since.

The commission had been under a five-year directive from supervisors to reopen the bridge’s roadbed for two-way traffic, but supervisors reversed that position earlier this year at the request of the bridge commission.

The concrete roadbed had been deteriorating and was closed to vehicles in 1998. It cannot be repaired and reopened, supervisors have decided, because the roadway is too narrow by today’s minimum standards.