GCN Special Report

$1-Billion in Katrina Bridge and Highway Repair Funds Approved by Feds for Mississippi
But is MDOT Up to the Task?

by Keith Burton - Gulf Coast News    Filed 3/8/06

Just this past week, Congress and the Federal Highway Administration approved $248 million in additional money to help repair roads and bridges in Mississippi damaged by Hurricane Katrina. This amount is added to nearly $740 million approved late in January and another $25 million approved last fall. With a billion dollars now available for Katrina-related road and bridge repairs it would look like South Mississippi's transportation system will soon be in good shape for the future.

That would be the case if it wasn't for the agency that will be administering these funds, the Mississippi Department of Transportation, or MDOT.

MDOT has been the focus of considerable criticism from politicians, the news media and the public regarding its performance across the state. But never so much as in the months since Katrina. With every vocal MDOT promise of progress to rebuild the Katrina damaged transportation network on the Coast comes some form of MDOT created delay and complication.

As GCN and others have reported, MDOT is not an agency that moves effectively on its mission. Throughout the state MDOT has a history of delayed work, stalled projects and promises of solutions that never develop. Now, with the massive damages from Katrina all about South Mississippi, MDOT's failures are even more pronounced. The Mississippi Coast's billion dollar a year casino industry and the rebuilding of the Coast from Katrina hinge on the bridge and roadwork that are in MDOT's hands.

Since Katrina, MDOT has announced three different delays in bidding the work for the Biloxi and Bay St. Louis bridges, the result of missteps and apparent incompetence in an agency that even in the best of times has a tradition of delays and deception. And these are not the best of times. A contract was let in January for the Bay St. Louis bridge, but problems developed regarding the Biloxi bridge.

The contract for the Bay St. Louis bridge was awarded in January at a cost of nearly $266 million, which was way over the $200 million MDOT thought the project would cost. But the Biloxi bridge bid award was delayed when area shipbuilding interests said they needed a bridge higher than MDOT's planned 85 foot high, ten lane bridge. MDOT and Governor Haley Barbour then compromised on a bridge at 95 feet, which then necessitated the project being rebid. The 85-foot high bridge was bid by the sole contractor at $274 million.  The higher bridge now planned may top $300 million. Regardless, both bridges are major projects in their own right.

Still, more than six months after the hurricane, the rubble of the Bay St. Louis and Biloxi-Ocean Springs bridges lie where Katrina left them. But some of the debris might finally be removed soon.

MDOT's  southern district commissioner Wayne Brown has repeatedly said that MDOT thought it best that whoever got the contract to build the bridges should remove the rubble. But now that seems to be a poor answer as it will still take months to remove the debris after any contract has let before construction can begin, rubble that could have been removed months ago. Recently, MDOT has indicated that debris removal in Biloxi might occur before the contract for rebuilding the bridge is issued.

GCN talked with Brown again, March 7, in a lengthy interview by telephone about how MDOT planned to spend the billion dollars in federal money. In the interview, Brown announced yet another date for awarding a bid for the Biloxi-Oceans Springs bridge.

He said MDOT now hopes to receive proposals through May and then award a contract on the Biloxi bridge around June 1st.

Brown explained that now that the bridge is going to be built at 95 feet the Federal Highway Administration and MDOT's attorneys recommended that the project be rebid. Coast residents and the federal government that is funding the project can only hope this date holds firm as it will still take the contractor weeks before equipment arrives on the site for work to begin after the contract is awarded. Brown says that cars should be on part of the new bridge within 15 to 17 months after the the contract is issued, that would be around September of 2007.

Brown says the billion dollars is to be spent to help repair the bridges, pay for debris removal and rebuild U.S. 90's drainage, which he said was more costly than anticipated. The money will also help pay for new signage and guard rails and numerous smaller details such as re-landscaping U.S. 90, new traffic signaling and road lighting. But don't expect MDOT to soon relight the I-110 bridge. He said the agency has more pressing work to do.

Regarding repairs to U.S. 90's drainage system, Brown said that MDOT contractors clearing sand and debris from the pipes along the shoreline found 11 alligators living inside the pipes.

Some of the money is also going to be spent in Hancock County to rebuild the beach road in downtown Bay St. Louis that was destroyed, as well as other roads around the county. Brown says MDOT will be meeting with Hancock County and city officials there soon. But with any project MDOT discusses, complications and delays will be part of the process.

Brown says the contractor working on the Bay St. Louis project should be "getting some boats in the water" this week. "But they are working."

Brown thinks that the negative press coverage regarding MDOT's operations is "totally uncalled for," but he doesn't think it will result in calls for reform from anyone in the state legislature. He says nobody wants to change an agency that answers to the public as well as MDOT does. Brown equates the performance of MDOT to his accessibility to telephone calls and not to the road work MDOT is responsible for.

"I answer my phone," Brown said. "Try to get a hold of the president of the state college board. We have the most responsive DOT in the country."

At no point did Brown cite a successful road project as a reason MDOT should not be reformed.

But Brown says criticism over delays doesn't account for problems in getting money for the work, which he says has been slow to arrive from the federal government.

"We couldn't bid the projects until we had the money," Brown said.

Interestingly, the money problems didn't surface until late in November when it became clear that the federal government would pay for the work. Shortly after Katrina and for several months after, MDOT had announced bids would be opened in December, but that didn't happen.

MDOT did receive funding for $2 billion worth of highway work in Mississippi in August prior to the hurricane, but the commissioners chose not to redirect the funding for any of the projects that money was earmarked for. Even so, only a portion of that money was available as it is to pay for work in other parts of  the state for several years into the future, Brown said.

MDOT is organized as independent agency with three elected commissioners and an executive director.

Coast officials have since the early 1990's sought additional bridges and roads to help support the successful gaming industry. And while numerous meetings were held and promises for new connector roads to I-10 have been discussed, projects such as the East Biloxi Connector and the Canal Road Connector have yet to see the first shovel of dirt removed. And while millions of dollars for those projects have been borrowed to help pay for the work, Brown acknowledged that both projects will involve more changes and that will result in further delays.

Brown said the Biloxi Connector project will likely be slowed further as a result of how the city's recovery takes place and the changes the recovery will bring as a result of new casinos and condominium development. There has already been nearly tens years of delays in that project.

GCN asked Brown if there is a list of projects that the federal Katrina money will be spent upon. Brown said that he doesn't have a list of projects that will absorb the billion dollars that the federal government is giving to the state. But isn't worried about how the money will be expended. He said the federal government will be "going through the money spent like a fine-tooth comb."

A major criticism of MDOT is that the agency doesn't have a consistent highway and bridge development plan, particularly for the Coast, and road plans in the rest of the state are far overdue for completion and substantially over costs, a criticism that was noted as far back as 1999 in a state review of MDOT.

Brown admits that the Coast is behind on transportation needs and "probably needs $2 billion" in road work.

While an impressive amount of money has been assembled by Governor and Congressional delegation to fund the rebuilding of the Coast's transportation system devastated by Katrina, the federal government still must use MDOT, an agency with few successes, to implement the actual work. Don't hold your breath.


Related:

Is MDOT Shortchanging the Coast On the New Biloxi Bridge - A GCN Special Report

MDOT: A History of Deception - Royce Hignight - A GCN Special Report

MDOT has No Credibility Over When Coast Bridges Will be Ready - GCN Editorial  Updated

MDOT: Legislature Should Enact Reforms - Clarion Ledger Opinion

MDOT- Who Will Change It? - GCN Guest Editorial - Royce Hignight

MDOT Must be Reformed and Reorganized - GCN Editorial 1/22/06 Updated

MDOT Commissioner Says He Doesn't Have the Money to Rebuild Coast Bridges - GCN

Son of MDOT's Director Profited from Bond Contracts - Sun Herald

Friendly Ethics Commission Gives Favorable Ruling - Sun Herald

Two MDOT Commissioners Claim They Didn't Know Brown's Son Profited - Sun Herald

Some Local Officials Knew Brown's Son Involved in MDOT Contracts - Sun Herald