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MDOT Commissioner Cannot Say When New Bridges Will be Built

by Keith Burton - GCN   Filed 12/6/05

A very revealing meeting about the Coast's transportation needs was held at Biloxi City Hall Tuesday. Southern District Highway Commissioner Wayne Brown finally admitted that he has no idea when the Biloxi-Ocean Springs Bridge and Bay St. Louis bridges will open.  The two vital bridges were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina August 29 and have been the focus of numerous news stories and meetings since. He also said that that he has little regard for plans by transportation experts that call for better alternatives.

Brown's rose-colored comments regarding the bridges have repeatedly been reported in the local media who's reporters never asked Brown to get specific. Brown, and MDOT have a lengthy record of failing to move forward on its promises. Brown said that work on the bridges will take at least 15 to 18 months after work gets underway to get some traffic on the bridges, but his agency has yet to begin any work at all and the piles of debris from the destroyed bridges remain where Katrina left them.

 Brown says the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) doesn't currently have the money for any of the the work, including getting rid of the debris, and it awaiting federal highway commission money and Congress to act. This is in spite of the fact that in August of this year,  the President signed a bill for $2.5-billion for highway projects in the state of Mississippi.

When pressed from GCN to get specific regarding dates for work, Brown admitted he really doesn't know when the bridges will be ready and would not commit to a specific date. Brown also said that he didn't know when exactly MDOT would be ready to issue contracts, but hopes that will occur in January.

Brown's waffling on the specifics of these critically needed bridges portends some difficult times ahead for the Coast's redevelopment. The two bridges, at either end of Harrison County are vital if the Coast's tourism industry is to recover quickly. Without them, Harrison and Hancock County are practically on dead-end roads.

Brown also said that his agency is still planning to build the bridges under what is called a "design-build" contract where the contractor provides for its own architect, engineer and construction workers to complete the project. This design-build process has never been allowed in Mississippi, nor has MDOT ever issued such a contract.

"We have never done this before," Brown said.

GCN asked Brown at the meeting if MDOT has the authority to issue a design-build contract and Brown said that his agency has a state Attorney General's opinion saying that it would be authorized. However, Brown could not cite who at the AG's office gave the permission and when such authorization was given. When Brown was specifically asked if there was a written Attorney General's opinion, Brown was uncertain and someone else would have to be asked. Brown seemed to be visibly shaken during this sequence of questioning.

There are concerns that the design-build concept eliminates the proper oversight of such projects and could be plagued with fraud and waste. Mississippi state law requires that a public entity engage its own architect or engineer in behalf of that entity, which is an accountability measure. While design-build projects are fairly common in the private sector, the use of public tax money without the needed oversight in place, could result in poorly designed, engineered and constructed bridges that could do more harm in the future. Brown admitted when pressed by GCN that his agency has no experience administering design-build contracts.

Brown also said that his agency was not spending much time reviewing the expert transportation recommendations provided by the governor's commission tasked with helping rebuild the Coast. Brown  did say that, "when you get a bunch of experts together, you learn a few things."

Brown's current plan calls for a huge 128-foot wide,  six-lane bridge with two additional lanes. This is regardless of the experts and the opposition of that bridge by Ocean Springs officials. GCN asked Brown if his agency had studied other alternatives, such as adding additional bridges, to improve traffic flow, he said that they had not. He said they were moving forward on transportation plans formulated in the 1990's.

During the meeting Tuesday, Ocean Springs Mayor Connie Moran appealed to Brown not to build the six-lane bridge, but Brown rebuffed her saying that the other parties involved, including Harrison County and Biloxi are okay with the existing proposal. Basically, Brown told Moran and the Ocean Springs citizens that they are to be to be ignored.

But it became clear at the meeting that Moran and the Ocean Springs City Council, had been misled by Brown in earlier meetings and that his promises of certain features and compromises desired by Ocean Springs, were not going to be realized. Ocean Springs officials had been led to believe that the bridge proposed by MDOT was required by federal regulations. But Ocean Springs officials later learned that the federal requirements did not exist.. When the city's officials signed a letter supporting MDOT's plans, that was before they learned that they had been misled from MDOT regarding the federal requirements. One Ocean Springs official noted after the meeting that they feel they have been lied to.

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