Railroad fires off letters opposing Old Bridge park | [8/10/06]

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 10, 2006

Kansas City Southern Railway is spreading the word: The company firmly opposes any additional steps toward converting the unused roadbed of the 76-year-old U.S. 80 bridge across the Mississippi River into a pedestrian park and bike path.

Letters saying so were delivered this week to the Vicksburg Bridge Commission, each Warren County supervisor, the executive director and all three district commissioners of the Mississippi Department of Transportation, state representatives George Flaggs and Chester Masterson, state senator Mike Chaney, U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, both U.S. senators and Gov. Haley Barbour, among others.

Local reaction Wednesday was that the letter may well kill any chance of grant funding.

Email newsletter signup

Sign up for The Vicksburg Post's free newsletters

Check which newsletters you would like to receive
  • Vicksburg News: Sent daily at 5 am
  • Vicksburg Sports: Sent daily at 10 am
  • Vicksburg Living: Sent on 15th of each month

The park proposal had been gaining momentum in recent weeks, with bridge commission and board of supervisors majorities voting to endorse an application to a federal-state fund.

The letter states that the railroad is &#8220strongly opposed” to using the roadbed, closed to vehicular traffic since 1998, as a recreational park.

It said the state and MDOT would be negligent for having any role in the park project.

MDOT is seeking a $50 million cut of a $244.1 million highway enhancement bill passed by Congress and signed by the president last year. Park funds would come from any portion MDOT receives.

Further, KCS said again that its lease with Warren County bars placement of anything that would make the structure more hazardous for rail use without the permission of the railroad.

Legal action has long been promised by the railroad if the park idea moved past the planning stages. That pledge was not repeated. However, KCS did state that the railroad would &#8220avail itself of whatever action is appropriate to prevent the establishment of a hazardous condition, such as establishing a recreational park adjacent to its mainline railroad” on the bridge.

The letter was written by the Jackson law firm retained by KCS, Wise Carter Child & Caraway.

Public information officials with KCS did not offer any additional statements this morning.

Vicksburg Bridge Commission chairman Robert Moss said the letter may not kill the grant application, but it likely dealt a serious blow to its chances of being approved.

&#8220It’s not over until it’s over, but it’s breathing its last breath,” Moss said, characterizing the letter as &#8220very abrasive.”

The grant was written by Gouras Urban Planning Consultants Inc. and filed in July. If the park becomes a reality, about $2.14 million of its funding would come from the federal government and $427,000 would be the local match paid from bridge funds.

While the KCS letter of opposition may sway officials at the state level to quash the project, the grant application lists 17 public and private entities supporting the project, including the cities of Vicksburg and Port Gibson, Vicksburg National Military Park and Mississippi Development Authority. Audubon Mississippi sent a letter of support after the application was filed, commissioners said.

The bridge was privately built in 1930 by an investment group and purchased as a public asset in 1947. Since then, supervisors have named commissioners to manage its day-to-day use, including maintenance and structural repairs. The money comes from tolls paid by KCS and utilities that have lines crossing the river on the bridge.

The park and bike path has been the focal point of ideas as to the bridge’s future for years, with numerous shifts in public opinion and wavering support from Warren County supervisors.

Supervisors had voted to sell the crossing to KCS in 1999 shortly after it was closed to vehicular traffic, but changed their minds due to a public outcry. In the only public referendum, citizens favored opening the roadbed to local traffic, but officials have said that cannot be done because of safety reasons, leaving the status quo or creating a park the only options.

Attached to the letters mailed Friday were copies of a similar one written in 2004 after supervisors told the commission it no longer needed to look for ways to reopen the bridge to traffic, which had been the directive since the referendum.

The major safety issue among park opponents besides KCS trains running a few feet from pedestrians is the slowly sliding bank on the Mississippi side of the bridge and pier movement measured at about a quarter-inch per month on average.

Wendell Ruff of ABMB Engineers Inc. told the board Monday that a soil anchoring project similar to the one to repair the sloughing of U.S. 61 South at Signal Hill was in order, with the cost to do it for the bridge at about $10 million.

&#8220Failure has already occurred,” Ruff said. Commissioners agreed funding for any slope stabilization would be have to be piecemeal, once again asking federal sources first.

As for the income from tolls, the most recent payment received by the commission was for $101,812.50, in July.

The $14 per-car rate to be effective in January was set by the commission in September, but for all but one month since, KCS has continued to pay the previous rate of $4 per car for the first 125,000 cars per month and $3.75 for each car after that.

The check received in July was a partial payment covering June’s car count, bridge superintendent Herman Smith said.

Rail traffic for July was reported at 28,494 cars, which is another record total, Smith said. At the $14 rate which the commission budgeted for in its spending plan for next fiscal year, that translates to $398,916.

The commission discussed legal matters relating to the lease in closed session, where no action was taken, Smith said.

Also, the commission decided to direct the superintendent to contact HNTB, a construction and architecture services firm, about streamlining the way it bills for annual inspections of the bridge.

Currently, the commission pays HNTB $13,500 a year for the visual inspection of above-water surface bridge infrastructure, plus additional money based on the hourly salary of the inspector.

Confusion as to how long the inspector is on site and what their exact activities are while they are out there are issues that need to be worked out, commissioners said.

&#8220In some way, the billing needs to be project-specific,” Moss said.

The commissioned adjourned until Sept. 13 at 9:30 a.m.