Bridge park application going forward|[12/16/05]

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 16, 2005

Attempts to apply for federal funds to finance a pedestrian trail and park on the U.S. 80 Bridge across the Mississippi River will continue – even as some county supervisors leave the door open to selling the 75-year-old span.

Vicksburg Bridge Commissioner Robert Moss and commission attorney Bobby Bailess spoke at an informal meeting of supervisors Thursday to discuss the park option, a day after commissioners heard from Vicksburg Warren Community Alliance and other community advocates who favor public use of the bridge.

Supervisors discussed the $50 million enhancement grant, sought through the Mississippi Department of Transportation. They talked about what the county could do with money from selling the bridge to Kansas City Southern Railway, such as building a new jail or a courthouse annex.

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McDonald said a new jail and courthouse annex would cost at least $20 million.

&#8220We are facing several large expenditures,” said Board President and District 1 Supervisor David McDonald, adding he was not opposed to &#8220going ahead” with the grant application &#8220but we’ve got some other options that we need to look at. If KCS won’t make us an offer, then I wouldn’t have a problem going forward with the park.”

KCS last offered to purchase the bridge in 1997 for $5.5 million. After a nonbinding, countywide vote that called for the bridge to be reopened to vehicular traffic, supervisors nixed the idea of selling it.

During that vote, most county residents voted to reopen, the second-largest group wanted a park and the smallest number voted to sell the span.

Backers of the pedestrian park, on the part of the bridge where cars and trucks drove until 1998, have said it could be a $25 million boon to the county’s economy.

McDonald said Thursday he doubts that claim.

&#8220I can’t see anywhere near that much of an impact,” he said.

Vehicular traffic on the bridge was halted because of deteriorating concrete and pier sloughing. Moss told supervisors unless repairs were made, any future offer to purchase the bridge would not be near its true value, estimated as high as $40 million.

&#8220It makes no sense to offer $40 million on something you’re fixing to pay $30 million to fix,” Moss said, adding that new $14 per-car lease agreements negotiated last month would go toward making repairs on the bridge within 10 years.

In a statement Thursday, KCS reiterated its past interest in purchasing the bridge, which the company said it had not discussed with the county recently, and its opposition to developing a public park on it, which would be &#8220contrary to the lease agreement, violates safety and homeland security concerns and would not be allowed under any circumstances.”

District 4 Supervisor Carl Flanders, a proponent of transforming the bridge for a pedestrian park, emphasized the county’s role in owning the bridge as leverage in deciding its future.

&#8220The best advice is to go with the best legal advice in this matter, which would be Mr. Bailess. What they’re saying to us is they can’t dictate to us what to do with our road bed,” Flanders said.

District 3 Supervisor Charles Selmon said he &#8220did not have a problem” with either option. He only favored having a public hearing on the matter.

&#8220We owe the taxpayers an explanation on this,” he said. Supervisors did not set a public hearing.

District 2 Supervisor William Banks, who took office this month, did not state a position, saying he needs additional information.

&#8220I’m just concerned about who’s going to pay for it. I’m thinking of the financial burden and who will bear it,” said District 5 Supervisor Richard George.

As for the grant, the application is due in March. However, the Bridge Commission was to resume its meeting today at 10 a.m. because a decision to seek federal money in the next funding cycle must be made by January.

In other business, county information systems manager David Rankin told Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, and Rep. Chester Masterson, R-Vicksburg, of the problems in communicating his concerns to the Secretary of State about the new centralized voting system.

Chief among those concerns, Rankin said, are retrieving the county’s voter list, printing reports and securing access to the voter registration lists.

Both state representatives favored stating those concerns in a letter from Rankin to the Secretary of State’s office.

The board was amenable to extending the contract of Ed Willis, who provided maintenance to the optical mark voting machines soon to be replaced by new touch-screen machines, expected to arrive by the end of this month.

Supervisors also talked about items of concern to the county that could be filed as general bills in the upcoming legislative session Jan. 3. Another meeting with the two representatives is likely before the start of the session.

The only specific item discussed Thursday was looking at ways to make up the funding gap in the E-911 Dispatch Center due to increasing use of cell phones and falling use of landline phones.

By state law, phone customers pay monthly surcharges of $1 for each home or cell-phone line and $2 for each business land line. Nearly 30 cents of every dollar collected in cell-phone fees is earmarked for return to cell-phone companies, however, so a shift toward increased use of that technology can cut E-911 centers’ expected revenue.

&#8220The 911 surcharge was just not designed to fund a centralized dispatch,” George said.