By Keith Burton – GCN Filed 1/20/06
“It’s no longer a transportation issue, it is an economic issue.” With that comment, made to GulfCoastNews.com Friday afternoon, Southern District Highway Commissioner Wayne Brown admitted that recent questions over a Biloxi-Ocean Springs bridge are having an impact on the plans by the Mississippi Department of Transportation.
Brown told GCN that his agency has heard the requests from Northrop-Grumman, Trinity Marine, the Harrison County Development Commission and Mississippi Development Authority that its planned bridge to replace the Katrina-destroyed Biloxi bridge needs to have a drawspan, which is currently not what MDOT wants to build.
Brown said the Coast Guard will be conducting a hearing on the bridge height and whether a drawspan will be needed, which is an indication that the issue reported by GCN on federal maritime law is a factor in the bridge’s design. That law says the bridges cannot be built that restrict economic development.
MDOT received the price proposals for both the Biloxi-Ocean Springs and Bay St. Louis bridges Monday. Brown said that MDOT had received the technical proposals on the bridges from their contractors this past week. He said that MDOT will likely award a contract on the Bay St. Louis bridge Tuesday. But the drawspan issue and the Coast Guard review will delay a contract being awarded on the Biloxi-Ocean Springs bridge.
“On the Biloxi-Ocean Springs bridge we still have some issues with the Coast Guard and height,” Brown said.
Brown said that MDOT does not have the expertise, or experience to decide on economic issues.
“We are not equipped to make those decisions, that’s something the development authority and governor will have to decide.” Brown said. “But right now, we don’t have the funding to do it, we don’t have the authority to decide on an economic development issue like that.”
Brown added that a drawspan would increase the cost of its proposed $200-million bridge by $70 or $80-million dollars, and delay the bridge by about a year. “People have to decide whether that amount of money could be spent on other economic development projects,” Brown said.
Regarding a GCN report from Harrison County Board of Supervisor’s President Connie Rockco that Harrison County could build the bridge, Brown said he though that shouldn’t be done, adding that it could open up other problems. Brown said U.S. 90 was a federal highway and should be maintained by the state.
But District 117 Representative Michael Janus says the state passed legislation over two years ago which would allow local jurisdictions to build roads and bridges that are on the state’s highway plan. Janus, who is from Biloxi, serves is vice chairman of the Marine Resources committee and also serves on the Conservation & Water Resources; Gaming; Municipalities; Ports, Harbors & Airports and Transportation committees.
“We did that to encourage local governments to build the roads and bridges they needed, for which later they would be reimbursed,” Janus said.
Rockco’s statements to GCN that the county could build the road as a way the get the process moving faster, is a legitimate way to move forward, according to Janus.
Brown said the Coast Guard could make a recommendation quickly, or it could take weeks. But if the Coast Guard decision stretches out for 60 days, MDOT would have to negotiate with its contractors to extend when they would accept the bids proposed, or start over.
Brown says the drawspan issue is his most pressing concern. He said that he believes the proposed height at 85-feet is sufficient for the area and that shipbuilders could choose other locations, such at Pascagoula’s Singing River Island, to build ships that have been proposed by Trinity Marine and Northrop-Grumman.
Brown said that MDOT still feels that the current 128-foot wide, ten-lane bridge is what is needed and that he doesn’t feel that MDOT will reduce the size of the bridge to make a drawspan more affordable. Brown added that part of the costs of MDOT’s proposed bridge is that the federal highway department wants any new bridge to be built higher to be less susceptible to hurricanes.
Ocean Spring Mayor Connie Moran has led a frustrating battle to get MDOT to change its plans and been accused of delaying the building the bridge, an accusation that is not justified by many insiders. She told GCN that this latest development proves that MDOT has not done its homework and will further delay the bridge.
“This delay is because of MDOT themselves in that they have not included citizens, community leaders and economic interests before making their plans,” Moran told GCN.
Brown has consistently warned that any delay in its plans would result in further delays, it now is certain that MDOT’s own plan, as more of it is known, is the problem.
There are powerful political and economic interests at work over the bridge and what it will mean for the future of the Gulf Coast. Brown at this juncture seems to realize that now, even if it appears to be a bit late in coming.
Said Brown, “Somebody wiser than me is going to have to make these decisions.”