Bridge income/spending nearly even for year, audit finds|[09/13/07]

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 13, 2007

More money collected from tolls on rail cars and a jump in net assets yielded another even-keel year for the Vicksburg Bridge Commission, results from an independent audit released Wednesday show.

Income from the per-car lease rate charged to Kansas City Southern Railway went up more than $53,000, accounting for 75 percent of all revenue for the county’s bridge authority. Operating expenses outpaced income by a scant $1,124.

Cash reserves and other property boosted assets to $5,638,862 in 2006-07, compared to $5,353,269 in 2005-06.

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KCS extended its reach in the past year into east Texas and Mexico and the increased rail traffic accounted for much of the uptick in tolls. The audit showed 340,692 rail cars crossed the U.S. 80 bridge at Vicksburg in 2006-07, a figure up more than 4 percent from 2005-06.

Financial logs showed a sharp drop in revenues expected from higher tolls the commission has sought from the railroad since 2005, funds once pegged at $3 million. Changes in financial reporting practices for public entities set forth by the Government Accounting Standards Board accounted for the drop, Superintendent Herman Smith said. The commission and its largest customer for the county-owned bridge have been in on-again, off-again negotiations over tolls and lease terms.

A $2.2 million operating budget for the upcoming year shows a $794,000 net increase in spending, with the bulk of it expected to pay for stopping soil movement against short piers on the Mississippi side and a soil-anchoring project to address movement of pier 2. Preliminary analysis by engineers continues, with the cost expected to reach $2.5 million. Addressing the pier movement may reach $10 million, according to most independent estimates.

Also, the commission has $256,148 in a separate reserve fund set up to head off potentially uninsured losses.

In other notes made by The Halford Firm, the audit’s contract preparers, the commission’s relationship with KCS is termed as one of “economic dependence,” with tolls collected from the railroad comprising about 90 percent of the operating income. Auditors also said changing the terms of the contract with KCS could have a significant impact on the commission.

The audit also acknowledges more than $2.4 million in payments billed to the commission for repairs made prior to the five-member board’s termination of the lease. In fiscal year 2005-06, the commission paid $1.8 million toward the claims. The commission has declined paying the remainder until new lease terms are hammered out.

A $113,808.75 check arrived from in August covering July’s rail traffic, Smith said. For months, the toll has been paid at a rate of $3.75 per car, down from a $4 rate. Traffic for August was recorded at 31,528 cars, the second-highest monthly total ever counted. In March, a record 32,094 cars crossed.

In other business, commissioners agreed to have board counsel respond to a $73,620.55 invoice from KCS, most of which details two expansion joints that have yet to be installed, Smith said.

The panel also agreed with the assessment of the insurance carrier for the firm replacing the bridge’s former road deck concerning access to land underneath the work on the Louisiana side.

Insurers for Columbia-based T.L. Wallace Construction have “emphatically said no” to logging and hunting access under the company’s $2 million effort to replace old, deteriorating concrete, chairman Robert Moss said.

Land owned by Robert Burney Long Jr., a Georgia resident and heir to the acreage sold to complete the bridge in 1930, had been leased to hunting clubs and loggers.

With the company as its agent in the issue, Moss said, the decision of its insurers is one with which it will stick.

Safety issues have also surrounded the presence of all-terrain vehicles being ridden within easy striking distance of pieces of falling concrete.

“We still have chunks and spikes falling,” Smith said, adding the work to replace the concrete is about 20 percent complete.

Not discussed at the meeting is a state Ethics Commission finding that Winky Freeman, the commissioner from District 4, is ineligible to serve due to his employment be a railroad company with financial ties to KCS. Freeman has said there is no conflict of interest and supervisors, who appoint members of the commission, have taken no action on the matter.