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Time to Think "Outside the Box" Over Bridges
by Keith Burton - GCN    Filed 1/19/06  
Updated 12:41 p.m.

With growing concerns that the Mississippi Department of Transportation is about to build a huge bridge  to replace the Biloxi/Ocean Springs and Bay St. Louis bridges without drawspans, more and more people and businesses are expressing their concerns.

And according to Connie Rockco, the new president of the Harrison County Board of Supervisors, "It is time to think outside the box."

MDOT keeps insisting that their eight-lane bridge will be what they will build regardless of the criticisms leveled against an agency well known for its hard-headed ways and poorly conceived projects. MDOT says it is about the approve bids on their new bridge which its Southern District Commissioner Wayne Brown says doesn't need a drawspan because the bridge will be high enough. But both the Harrison County Development Commission and the Mississippi Development Authority say that MDOT's plan would be restrictive to the expected needs of the shipbuilding industry developing at the Harrison County Industrial Park.

Wednesday, the Sun Herald reported that the head of Northrop Grumman Ship Systems added his company's voice to the debate over the replacement bridge that would connect Biloxi and Ocean Springs. Phil Teel wrote to Gov. Haley Barbour recommending revising the design of the bridge so it will permit higher clearance through use of a drawspan, a removable span or other method "so there would be no limit to our future business at our Gulfport operation."

With nearly five months gone since Hurricane Katrina, MDOT has done nothing to get the work started on replacing the badly needed bridges that are at either end of Harrison County, which are critical to the Coast economy. Both were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

But Rockco, in an interview with GCN Wednesday evening, said the solution to MDOT's our-way-or-no-way position may be to have Harrison County build the bridge.

"The money that is coming to replace the bridge to the state could just come to Harrison County," Rockco said. "We have built many bridges in the past and I have been told that we could get it done faster and at less cost than what MDOT is proposing."

Rockco said that bridge contractors could actually get the work done in less than year, which would be nearly a full year faster than MDOT is proposing. However, in a phone call from Rockco to GCN Thursday, she sought to clarify her comment saying that she doesn't know exactly that the bridge could be built faster or with less money.

"We just need to get the federal money directed by the Governor into our hands," Rockco said. MDOT isn't looking at our economic needs or what our area's economy is all about."

Rockco said she wasn't speaking for the whole board of supervisors, but the board's Vice President Larry Benefield told GCN in an earlier interview that the new bridge needs to have a drawspan.

Leland Speed of the Mississippi Development Authority, also interviewed by GCN, said MDOT's planned Biloxi-Ocean Springs bridge is a major mistake that would limit the Coast's economic future. But his agency does not have the power to stop MDOT. "They are an independent agency," Speed told GCN.

MDOT's independence is one of the major issues that critics point out. Even experts with the Governor's Commission on Rebuilding the Coast said MDOT needed to be reformed. Efforts to reform MDOT have in the past failed but reform is something people are talking about. MDOT's plan also violates federal maritime law that says bridges must not be built that would restrict economic interests. All of which MDOT and Wayne Brown have ignored.

But Rockco says the county has the ability to build the bridge. The county has built several major bridges in the past including those in west Harrison County north of Pass Christian and south of the DuPont plant, and it built the Popps Ferry Bridge across Biloxi's Back Bay.

"Give us the money and let us build it," said Rockco.

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