Hearings recommended for old bridge plans|[4/14/05]

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 14, 2005

A series of hearings to gauge public sentiment is recommended in a new feasibility report on the proposal to convert the U.S. 80 Mississippi River bridge into a pedestrian and bicycle park.

Lynn Wolfe of ABMB Engineers presented a final report Wednesday to members of the Vicksburg Bridge Commission who are again recommending the plan rejected by Warren County voters five years ago.

According to commission members, the park would pose the least liability to Warren County, which owns the 75-year-old span.

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Commission members accepted the 24-page report, but had no comments and took no action. The report is an update of the same study generated by ABMB in 1999, containing little new information. The new estimated cost of converting the bridge for pedestrian and bicycle traffic to the state line is $1.5 million.

In 1999, the plan called for a park across the full length of the bridge at a cost of about $2 million.

The new recommendations include a protective fence between railroad tracks, which would remain in service, and the roadbed, which has been closed since 1998 due to deteriorating concrete. It also includes landscaping, restrooms and golf cart transportation for handicapped and elderly. Those same recommendations were included in the 1999 report.

ABMB engineers have also projected an annual cost of about $195,000 to maintain the park and a phased plan that would eventually extend the park to Louisiana.

One new part of the report is a 33-page supplemental study from the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. That report looked at 31 existing recreational trails adjacent to active railroad lines.

Warren County supervisors, who ultimately will decide the fate of the bridge, had authorized the five-member bridge commission to study the feasibility of the park after years of public debate concerning it’s future.

Commission members had pitched the park plan in 1999, but a nonbinding referendum indicated nearly 2-1 public support for roadbed repairs and reopening the bridge to traffic. Supervisors have said they cannot pursue that option because the too-narrow roadbed is obsolete and the county’s liability would be too great.

Most operational funding comes from a per-car toll charged to Kansas City Southern for use of the railroad tracks that run parallel to the roadbed. KCS is on record opposing consideration or creation of a park, saying the county is violating lease terms and creating a safety hazard – and pledging litigation.

The railroad company recently asked to review the bridge commission’s financial records, and has also objected to using funds generated from the railroad lease to repair the roadway of the bridge.