Bridge group resolute despite silence from railroad

Published 1:00 am Saturday, November 15, 2014

GROUNDSWELL: A fog rolls under the U.S. 80 bridge over the Mississippi River.

GROUNDSWELL: A fog rolls under the U.S. 80 bridge over the Mississippi River.

Dialogue with Kansas City Southern Railroad over a renewed push to make a pedestrian walkway on the old U.S. 80 bridge a reality remains elusive, said two members of an informal group who are reviving the concept.
Friends of the Vicksburg Bridge “is a big group now” in terms of support voiced from the community, said John Wheeless, an attorney who, along with Linda Fondren, co-owner of Shape Up Sisters fitness center and onetime Vicksburg mayoral candidate, confirmed participation in meetings held on the topic earlier this year. The group sent a letter to KCS in October asking to meet before the month was out.
No response has come from the railroad on the group’s request, Fondren said.
Wheeless said eight others round out the Friends group — Steve Golding, John Golding, Kane Ditto, J. Mack Varner, Hunter Fordice, Robert Morrison III, Linnie Wheeless and Buddy Dees. He said the importance of remaining anonymous was overstated, in light of verbal support the group has received. Correspondence was directed to Dees in the group’s letter, dated Oct. 3.
“We formed a committee to go forward — a group of concerned people who want to get it going,” Wheeless said.
The request for a conversation with the railroad bore the signatures of Mayor George Flaggs Jr., Warren County Board of Supervisors president Bill Lauderdale, Vicksburg Warren County Chamber of Commerce advisory board president Don Brown and Vicksburg Convention and Visitor’s Bureau executive director Bill Seratt. The county has accepted the letter for information. It hasn’t appeared in the city’s or the VCVB’s board minutes.
U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson in an Oct. 27 letter to KCS CEO David Starling has voiced support for a meeting between the railroad and the mostly local group calling the project “worthwhile.”
“I’d want to see what the railroad has to say,” Lauderdale said late Friday, adding no response had come the county’s way from KCS since the long-discussed idea resurfaced. “Two things have got to happen — the railroad’s got to agree and someone’s got to help us pay for it.”
The 1.6-mile bridge owned by Warren County and managed by the five-member Vicksburg Bridge Commission closed to vehicles in 1998 over safety concerns, voiced mainly by the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development. Louisiana maintains the Interstate 20 bridge and stopped allocating money to the U.S. 80 bridge on west side of the state line after it closed to vehicles.
Tolls paid by KCS per rail car support the bridge commission budget, which is dedicated nearly exclusively to maintenance. Special events on the bridge’s roadbed have spiked in the past half-decade since the Over The River Run started in 1989.
KCS has opposed two major efforts to finance a walkway with federal highway money since the bridge closed to vehicles. The most recent was in 2006, when KCS opposed it in writing to state and federal legislators from Vicksburg, including Thompson, the Mississippi Department of Transportation and then-Gov. Haley Barbour.
Bridge commissioners’ vote to support the last effort was unanimous. This past week, most of the panel held back support for the latest push, citing funding.

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