Friends meet with KCS about park

Published 1:18 pm Thursday, December 18, 2014

Details were few but the tone amicable Wednesday during a meeting in Jackson between a few public officials from Vicksburg and Warren County and Kansas City Southern Railroad about the future of the U.S. 80 bridge, officials said.

Specifically, talk turned to the latest public groundswell to turn the old U.S. 80 bridge’s driving surface into a pedestrian park and bike path.

“They listened to our concerns and requests,” Warren County Board of Supervisors president Bill Lauderdale said. “They’re going to get back with us.”

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The meeting, spurred by a request by an informal group of park supporters dubbed Friends of the Vicksburg Bridge, was set up by Vicksburg Mayor George Flaggs Jr., who signed off on the city board’s support of the long-discussed idea.

Flaggs called it a “beginning of a new beginning” in relations between the railroad and the community on the topic.

“The railroad said they would be fair, open and objective, but firm in the sense of what they have there,” Flaggs said, adding the meeting took place at Wise Carter Child & Caraway law firm, the railroad’s outside counsel.

Both men said attorney A.J. “Buddy” Dees, businesswoman Linda Fondren and former Jackson mayor Kane Ditto represented the Friends group at the meeting. Also attending, they said, were state Sen. Briggs Hopson III, city attorney Nancy Thomas, KCS executive director for corporate affairs Warren Erdman and attorney Betty Toon Collins.

In October, the Friends group sent a letter to Erdman that said doing a park and bike path on the county-owned bridge would enhance recreation and presented an economic development opportunity. In a letter a month later, the railroad reiterated its previous stance that a park would be a safety hazard for trains and the public.

The 1.6-mile bridge was built in 1930 and is managed by the five-member Vicksburg Bridge Commission. It 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. The most recent was in 2006, when both local governing boards, tourism officials and others supported an effort to finance a conversion paid for with a $50 million federal highway grant. KCS opposed it in writing to state and federal legislators from Vicksburg, including U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, the Mississippi Department of Transportation and then-Gov. Haley Barbour. Thompson on Oct. 27 voiced support for the idea, saying it was worth at least a meeting.

Lauderdale and Flaggs said the talks didn’t cover funding or logistics such as parking and accommodations for a park, but seemed confident there would be a second meeting.

“No specific follow up meetings or times were set,” said C. Doniele Carlson, a representative from
Kansas City Southern Railroad.

“They’ve got shareholders to answer to and all. It’s a unique situation and we’re trying to be amicable with each other,” Lauderdale said. “It is an extremely high risk for KCS (to do a park). “We’ll just navigate through their concern.”