Stabilization for bluff near bridges could cost millions|[2/10/05]

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 10, 2005

Stabilization of the bank on the Mississippi side of the U.S. 80 Mississippi River bridge will be costly, but is needed to safeguard the future of the structure, engineers and bridge officials said Wednesday.

“The consequence of failure here is immense and I don’t believe we can afford not to do this,” said Max Reed, chairman of the bridge commission.

Engineers of the ABMB firm presented their initial findings to the Vicksburg Bridge Commission and recommended a multimillion-dollar project including the construction of new retaining walls under the 75-year-old bridge and other erosion-control measures.

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So far, the commission paid $50,000 for the initial report and approved spending up to another $75,000 for the second phase of the design work. ABMB engineers could not say how much they anticipate the work costing, but say it will be similar, but smaller in scale, to a $25 million bluff stabilization project in Natchez.

Wendel Ruff of ABMB said small retaining walls built nearly 50 years ago under the bridge just north of the Mississippi Welcome Center on Washington Street are starting to fail, opening the possibility that huge sections of the bluff could slide. Readings taken between the visitors center and the bridge indicate the ground there moved two-tenths of an inch over two months.

While that movement isn’t alarming, Ruff said he needs to be addressed.

“I think (the retaining walls are) what saved the bridge,” Ruff said. “If not for those the loose soil would have knocked those supports off their foundations.”

Their findings also indicate that the bluff at Navy Circle, part of the Vicksburg National Military Park, have moved about 20 feet in the past 60 years, said Eddie Templeton, a geotechnical consultant to ABMB. Ruff said they plan to work with the park service on stabilizing that bluff also.

“Even though there hasn’t been any dramatic changes over the past 50 years, you really can’t afford any change. Five feet and it will be right on you,” Templeton said.

Ruff said the next phase in the project will be to begin design and make contact with federal agencies that could help fund the project including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Department of the Interior.

“The cost would be considerable, and everyone who will be influenced needs to be involved,” Ruff said.

The bridge commission contracted with ABMB nearly a year ago because of erosion problems under the bridge. Warren County has owned the privately built bridge since 1947 and operates it like a business, collecting tolls from the railroad and utility rentals.

The span closed to vehicular traffic since 1998 is the only railroad crossing of the Mississippi River between Memphis and Baton Rouge. Commission members have recommended converting the roadbed into a pedestrian and bicycle park and have contracted with ABMB for those plans.

A park plan proposed in 1999 was rejected by voters who favored reopening the bridge nearly 2-1, but five years later that directive was rejected by county supervisors who ultimately control its fate.