Public needs more info on bridge, Freeman says |[7/22/05]

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 22, 2005

People didn’t have enough information six years ago when ballots favored reopening the U.S. 80 Mississippi River bridge roadway, the bridge commission chairman said Thursday.

“The last time there was a vote there was a lot of misinformation out there,” said “Winkie” Freeman, who heads the appointed five-member management board.

If there’s another vote, Freeman told members of the Port City Kiwanis Club, people should take time to learn the issues.

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In 1999, a countywide referendum resulted in a nearly 2-1 endorsement of repairing the concrete roadway and reopening it to light vehicular traffic.

Warren County supervisors, who called for the vote in 1999, have not publicly discussed another balloting, but have said the roadway, closed in 1998 due to sloughing of the roadway, will not be put back in service.

Options on the ballot six years ago were to sell the bridge, reopen it for traffic or convert it into a park for bicycles and pedestrians. Immediately after the vote, supervisors instructed the commission to move ahead with repairs, but later reversed that decision and allowed the commission to pursue other options, including a park.

“I just think we need to utilize that asset because many communities don’t have this,” Freeman said.

Two bridges cross the Mississippi River in Vicksburg, the county-owned U.S. 80 bridge and the Interstate 20 bridge to its south.

Since 1972, residents and cross-country motorists have been able to use the four-lane I-20 bridge instead of the narrow, two-lane U.S. 80 bridge. Before then, the older span was the only way to cross the river between Greenville and Memphis and still today it is the only railroad crossing between Memphis and Baton Rouge.

The bridge, which the county has owned since the 1940s, is operated by the five-member Vicksburg Bridge Commission. Its revenue comes from fees paid by rail companies and utilities that use the span to cross the river.

Freeman did not say he expected there to be another vote on the future of the span, but there has been some talk in the community about bringing it to a vote again.

Also, he said, though there is no purchase offer on the table from Kansas City Southern Railway to purchase the bridge, the company that leases the tracks on the crossing might still be interested. KCS had offered $5.5 million to buy the bridge in 1997. Supervisors initially agreed to the sale, but then reversed that decision, too.

“I think they (KCS) would like to own the bridge and they would be more satisfied,” Freeman said.

KCS representatives have publicly opposed the park proposal for the bridge and said they have no intentions of buying the bridge unless Warren County expresses an interest in selling.