TOP 10 of 2018: Group pushes for Old Vicksburg Bridge opening year-round

Published 8:27 pm Thursday, December 20, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is the No. 8 story in The Vicksburg Post’s Top 10 stories of 2018.

There was a renewed effort to open the Old Vicksburg Bridge to daily bicyclist and pedestrian traffic in 2018 by a core group of individuals calling themselves “Friends of the Vicksburg Bridge.”

The group went before the Warren County Board of Supervisors in April seeking support and a resolution requesting the Vicksburg Bridge Commission open the historic bridge on a daily basis to pedestrians and bicyclists.

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The 1.6-mile, 88-year-old span is owned by Warren County and managed by the five-member Vicksburg Bridge Commission. It was closed to vehicles in 1998 over safety concerns presented mainly by the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development. Louisiana maintains the Interstate 20 bridge and stopped allocating money to the bridge on the west side of the state line after it was closed to vehicles.

Kansas City Southern Railroad leases the track on the bridge from the county.

The bridge’s driving surface, or deck, is a popular site for special events like the Over The River Run, which began in 1989, 5K walks, the Bricks and Spokes ride to promote downtown, a breast cancer benefit featuring bras strung along the old road’s railing. Wheelchair bikers and bicyclists have also crossed the old bridge for a “Walk, Roll and Stroll” benefit for Living Independence for Everyone, a Jackson-based charity for the disabled. A new event called “Supper on the ‘Sip” drew a large crowd in the fall.

“There is a lot of support for this initiative state wide and locally, and many believe it would be an overnight tourism draw for Vicksburg, Warren County, and the entire state of Mississippi,” Elizabeth Nelson, a member of the group said in April. “The special events held on the bridge have been a great success, now it is time to open the bridge to the public full time.”

Linda Fondren spoke on behalf of the group in April to the supervisors and outlined the benefits of having the bridge open for all to use.

“This is an opportunity to transform the bridge into an asset for the county,” Fondren said.

Two efforts since 1998 to fund a bicycle park on the old bridge in Vicksburg with federal highway money have petered out due to opposition from Kansas City Southern Railroad citing safety as a reason. The most recent was in 2006, when KCS opposed it in writing to state and federal legislators from Vicksburg, the Mississippi Department of Transportation and then-Gov. Haley Barbour.

A coalition of local government and tourism promotion entities had applied for grant money via MDOT to finance the project.

A 1999 study commissioned by the Warren County Bridge Commission addressed improving the bridge to make it safer for walkers and cyclers.

Buddy Dees, who has also been a long-time supporter of opening the bridge year-round, said that study is still relevant.

“We ask that you direct the bridge commission to look into opening the bridge year-round,” Dees said.

In June, the supervisors passed a resolution directing the bridge commission “… to take such action as it deems reasonable and appropriate to open the 18-foot wide roadway for pedestrian and bicycle traffic on a daily basis.”

KCR not in favor

The Kansas City Railroad, which leases the rail portion of the bridge and has made it clear it does not favor opening the bridge to pedestrians and bicyclists daily, could potentially fight the move in court.

Passing the resolution “gives the bridge commission the latitude they need to have to do the necessary process of deliberation to make a wise decision,” Warren Board of Supervisors President Richard George said. “That’s important for them to know they have the support to exercise their opportunity to research and decide.”

In August, lawyers for the Warren County Board of Supervisors and the Vicksburg Bridge Commission, who sought an official opinion from the AG’s office regarding the commission’s legal authority to reopen the bridge to the public for the purpose of pedestrian and bicycle traffic and to expend its funds to pursuing the reopening of the bridge for such purposes, received an AG letter stating the commission does have the legal authority.

In October, the Board of Mayor and Aldermen also passed a resolution in support of opening the bridge to daily pedestrian and bicyclist traffic.

The Old Vicksburg Bridge, also known as the U.S. 80 Bridge, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The cantilever bridge was built in 1928-30 and was used for vehicles to across the Mississippi River until 1998 when the new Vicksburg Bridge was built a short distance down river.