Trains cross 80 bridge in record numbers|[04/12/07]

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 12, 2007

Kansas City Southern trains crossed the Mississippi River at Vicksburg on the U.S. 80 bridge in a record numbers in March – but the company keeps paying at the old rate, not the new rate billed by the Vicksburg Bridge Commission for nearly two years.

No resolution was in sight for the dispute, nor was a new lease agreement.

KCS reported sending 32,094 cars across the bridge, owned by Warren County.

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&#8220That’s the most cars that have ever crossed,” said Herman Smith, superintendent of the 77-year-old span since 2002.

Smith told commissioners Wednesday a $111,912 check covering February’s traffic of 27,978 cars had been received from KCS or about $4 per car. Since 2005, the commission has wanted the rail company to pay $14 per car.

KCS has declined to talk about the dispute and commissioners have not said what is being done about the discrepancy. Under a discredited lease, the gist of the agreement is that rail tolls will be recalculated periodically to cover the cost of bridge operations and maintenance. Warren County receives no general revenue from the bridge, which has historically been a break-even asset.

A trio of issues in the past 10 years has likely rankled the railroad. First, supervisors agreed to sell KCS the bridge in 1997, then backed out. Second, KCS discovered the commission had more than $6 million in reserve funds for bridge improvements. Third, KCS is on record against any public access to the bridge’s former roadbed and the county and commission are moving ahead with planning and funding searches for a pedestrian park over the Mississippi.

Since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in the mid-1990s, railways have steadily increased rail traffic throughout much of the Southeast. KCS has had several track improvement projects in the Vicksburg area and safety enhancements. Currently, one crossing in Clinton is set for closure and, in Tallulah, officials are negotiating up to four possible closures in return for a monetary payment from KCS.

Vicksburg is the central passing-through point of the Meridian Speedway, a joint venture between KCS and Norfolk Southern Corporation.

In other business, the commission, accepted a $39,725 bid from Brandon-based Access Technologies to install security cameras on the bridge.

A portion of the cost will be defrayed by a $50,000 law enforcement-related grant secured by Warren County from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, funds Smith said should be available for another six months because of extensions sought on its behalf by the Warren County Sheriff’s Department. However, the commission will have to spend about $2,500 annually in maintenance costs associated with the cameras, plus about $3,000 on pre-installation electrical work on the system.

The viability of the cameras has been linked to any future use of the bridge by pedestrians, too.

&#8220I guess we’re hiring watchers to watch the watchers we already have,” said Commissioner Ray Wade, referencing the commission’s contract with Red Carpet Security to provide uniformed guards for the span.

The bridge has been identified by Homeland Security as critical infrastructure worthy of enhanced security.

Commissioners also approved a $2,250 bid from The Halford Firm to perform auditing work for fiscal year 2007-08.