Legislation could fund old bridge changes|[03/08/07]

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 8, 2007

The same piece of federal highway enhancement legislation being tapped for Vicksburg Transportation Museum funds could pay for the long-discussed conversion of the roadbed of the U.S. 80 bridge across the Mississippi into a pedestrian and bicycle path – but that’s far less certain.

The Mississippi Department of Transportation secured more than $30 million in funds for use statewide via the Safe, Affordable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users, legislation dubbed the SAFETEA-LU bill.

A reauthorization of earlier highway bills passed in the 1990s, it guaranteed funding for $244.1 billion in highway projects nationwide.

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Another $10 million MDOT has been allocated since the act was signed by President Bush in 2005 is set aside for four projects on hold since late last year until either financing or legal issues are settled, said Lee Hill, Mississippi Department of Transportation Central District Assistant Commissioner.

Hill added that all projects must receive a favorable nod from the Federal Highway Administration.

Other projects on the list include a Rails-To-Trails path to run through northern Mississippi, a historic downtown trail in Natchez and a welcome center in Lucedale.

Some of those involve smaller towns searching to come up with matching money to comply with federal standards regarding grants.

The bridge park, which has strong opposition, would be funded with $2 million in federal money and about $400,000 to be matched locally from bridge funds.

&#8220All will remain there until some more money comes available or other issues are resolved,” Hill said.

In the case of the bridge park for the bridge, privately built in 1930 and purchased by Warren County in 1947, the chief hurdle is persuading Kansas City Southern railway to back off promised legal action if the idea ever moves past concept stages.

In 2006, Warren County supervisors supported the Vicksburg Bridge Commission’s decision to apply for the grant that would fund most of the project, in a turnabout from nine years earlier when a previous board nearly sold the bridge to KCS for $5.5 million. A previous grant application in 1999 was allowed to expire due to a lack of county support.

A host of local and regional entities have voiced support for the current attempt, including the cities of Vicksburg and Port Gibson, Vicksburg National Military Park, Mississippi Development Authority and Audubon Mississippi.

Still, the railroad has not budged from a position spelled out in a September letter fired off to a legion of state and local elected leaders that a park of any form poses a safety risk and a violation of its lease. The rail company, through per-car tolls, is the county’s biggest &#8220customer” for bridge use and pays for engineering and maintenance services.

While negotiations over the past 18 months between the railroad and the county have largely centered around an agreeable lease rate – a gap of $10 a car still exists between what the commission desires and what the railroad has actually paid – some local officials met with MDOT Central District Commissioner Dick Hall in January to get their own update.

&#8220Our request was put to the side,” said Bridge Superintendent Herman Smith, who did not attend those meetings. &#8220Right now, we really don’t know.”

District 4 Supervisor Carl Flanders, in whose district the bridge forms a boundary, did attend those talks, along with commission chairman Robert Moss, attorney Bobby Bailess and Wendell Ruff of ABMB Engineering Inc.

Flanders said MDOT remained reluctant to commit funds due to the KCS objection.

The railroad has also not given up on making higher offers to purchase the bridge, Flanders said.

&#8220Ultimately, they want to buy the bridge,” he said. &#8220I’m absolutely convinced.”

Flanders, facing a re-election challenge this year from three opponents, said he continues to have &#8220no inclination” to vote for selling the bridge.

Other supervisors have said an offer of no less than $25 million would be acceptable.

The types of projects the SAFETEA-LU bill was to fund were criticized by government watchdog groups as too earmark-heavy, as the final version contained 6,373 projects at an added cost of $24.2 billion. Chief among them was a controversial $200 million bridge in Alaska dubbed the &#8220bridge to nowhere.”

However, the bill provided $370 million through 2009 to build and maintain trails for many recreational purposes, including pedestrian. One, for example, was earmarked for Petal, outside Hattiesburg in Lamar County.