Coast Guard OKs new U.S. 90 bridge
Keith Burton - GCN Filed 2/21/06 GCN Updated 2/22/06
Mayor A.J. Holloway notified the Biloxi City Council Tuesday afternoon that he'd just learned that the U.S. Coast Guard has approved construction of a new high-rise bridge to link Biloxi and Ocean Springs.
Holloway's remarks were met with applause from the crowded City Council meeting. Holloway said that MDOT notified him shortly before the council's 1:30 meeting that the Coast Guard said the bridge must be at least 85 feet high and 150 feet wide, and does not have to include a draw span.
Interestingly, the Coast Guard's role was how high the bridge would need to be and whether it would need to have a drawspan. It is unlikely that the Coast Guard made an official determination on the bridge's width.
"Of course," Holloway said in a report on the city's website, "I've thought that this issue was resolved before, but it does sound as if things are going to move forward now."
The Coast Guard announcement, Holloway said, should settle a months-long discussion over the bridge's height and whether it would have a span for marine traffic. Hurricane Katrina destroyed the Biloxi-Ocean Springs bridge when the storm came ashore Aug. 29, eliminating a vital route to east Biloxi.
Holloway said Southern District Transportation Commissioner Wayne Brown planned to ask that MDOT award a contract at its Tuesday meeting, and construction on the $275 million project could begin in about 60 days.
Under Brown's plan, Holloway said, motorists could be driving over portions of the new bridge as early as 15 months after construction begins.
"This is promising news for our recovery efforts, not only here in Biloxi but for the entire Gulf Coast," Holloway said.
"When you consider that about 30,000 vehicles a day were having to make a long, time-consuming detour, and when you consider the price of fuel, this was creating a million-dollar a week drag on our economy, and slowing our recovery."
But Holloway's optimism that the Coast Guard's decision will end the controversy over the bridge may turn out not to be correct.
The decision appears to be a setback for the Harrison County Development Commission, Trinity Marine and Northrop-Grumman who wanted the bridge built with a draw span to allow for large vessels to pass. The Coast Guard's recommendation does not mean, however, that a smaller bridge with a draw span could not be built, but if a bridge is planned without a span, then the height and width requirements would have to be met. The Coast Guard's decision does not mandate what type of bridge is to be built.
GCN has learned that the Coast Guard's decision was made without the details of the information from the opposition, which includes Northrop-Grumman and other agencies that requested that the bridge be built with a drawspan. The Coast Guard may have also not known that Mississippi Power is studying submerging its power line near the bridge and that Senator Trent Lott had filed a bill to deepen the channel. There are questions whether the Coast Guard may also not have know about the desire of Gov. Haley Barbour that the bridge be built with a draw span. If this information was not provided by MDOT to the Coast Guard, then there may be questions raised on the whole process.
But, with the Coast Guard's approval of a bridge without a draw span, the Mississippi Department of Transportation is a step closer to replacing the U.S. 90 bridge destroyed by Katrina, but it also means the future economic development of the area is more restricted. The Coast Guard's decision is surely to trigger another round of opposition that could put the issue into the courts.
The Coast Guard appears to have ignored federal laws that say bridges cannot be built that interfere with navigatable waterways.
Granite Archer Western, a joint venture of several construction and design companies, was the only company to bid on the Biloxi Bay bridge project in January and one of only two bidders on the Bay of St. Louis bridge, which is also to be replaced. Its bids of $266.8 million for the Bay of St. Louis bridge and $274.9 million for the Biloxi Bay bridge were much higher than the $200 million high-end estimates for both projects that Southern District Highway Commissioner Wayne Brown has been quoting for months. Granite Archer Western hopes to have two lanes of the Bay St. Louis bridge open for travel by April 29, 2007 and the project completed by Nov. 13, 2007.
The outcome of the Coast Guard's decision also affects future bridges on Biloxi's Back Bay, including a new North-South Connector bridge planned for Biloxi.