Brown Admits to More Delays to Coast Bridges
by Keith Burton - GCN Filed 2/27/06
Southern District Highway Commissioner Wayne Brown admitted Sunday night that there are more delays in store for the U.S. 90 bridges in Bay St. Louis and Biloxi. This is not a surprise to anyone following the issue on the badly needed bridges. Brown made his comments in a live WLOX television Sunday night program.
The two bridges at either end of Harrison County, are critical to the economic recovery of the Coast from Hurricane Katrina. As the months from Katrina have passed, a growing controversy over replacing the bridges has alarmed both residents and Coast officials as it seems that the Mississippi Department of Transportation has botched getting the bridges replaced. MDOT insist it wants to build a bridge without a draw span, which area shipbuilders say is needed for the Coast future development. The existing bridge has draw span.
MDOT's bridge also ignores transportation experts who say the Coast's future transportation demands would be better served by more bridges not larger bridges. MDOT's Biloxi bridge plan calls for a huge 10-lane bridge either at 85 or 95 feet. But Coast residents just want a bridge, a bridge that has yet to take shape from MDOT's own actions.
Currently, both bridges lay at the bottom of the bays where Katrina left them. Six months after Katrina, MDOT has not removed the first broken span and no equipment are at the sites. While a contract to rebuild the Bay St. bridge has been issued, no work has begun.
In comments on WLOX Sunday night, Brown said the contractor working on the Bay St. Louis bridge has asked for more time to complete the bridge. Brown said that the contractor is having trouble getting the pre-stressed concrete sections needed to construct the bridge there. As a result, more time will be needed.
The Biloxi-Ocean Springs bridge faces another problem. Brown says that Governor Haley Barbour and the Coast's shipbuilding industries need a higher bridge than MDOT's current design. If a draw bridge is not built, then MDOT is willing to go 95 feet rather than the 85 feet in the current design. But even then, Brown admits that the 95 feet may not be high enough.
But if MDOT goes with the higher 95 feet, Brown said that MDOT may have to rebid the project, which will add three more months before a contract can be awarded..
Brown says that MDOT will not be issuing a contract on the bridge this week as he had indicated shortly after the Coast Guard approved the 85 foot height several weeks ago. He said MDOT's attorneys and his staff are talking with the contractor to see if the rebidding is certain.
MDOT and WLOX television reporter Dave Elliott suggested that it has been the opponents to the bridge that caused the delays, but that is not the case. The Coast Guard review is a required part of the process of building any bridge. The Coast Guard routinely reviews height issues on bridges and it is required by law. MDOT's Wayne Brown and reporters with WLOX have repeatedly suggested that the Coast Guard review was a delay. The reality is that MDOT was required to go before the Coast Guard with their plan and the suggestion that there was a delay is not true.
If MDOT had approached the Coast Guard shortly after the hurricane, or even several months ago, they would have not had any "delay." MDOT knows the procedure with the Coast Guard.
Some observers feel that MDOT has been trying to maneuver around a variety of normal procedures that bring to question their entire efforts to replace the badly needed bridges.
Their use of the design build method resulted in only one bidder. MDOT held no public meetings and took no public comment on their bridge design. While MDOT did meet with area city and county officials, those meetings were not public hearings, and no public comments were taken.
As to when Brown says the Biloxi bridge might be open, he said Sunday night that two lanes could be ready Oct. 1, 2007 and the bridge completed on April 1, 2008. April fools days. Considering the progress so far, Brown's April Fools Day opening would be a completion day only fools would believe.
MDOT has almost no credibility regarding the bridges. After months of touting that they will act quickly to rebuild the bridges, Wayne Brown announced just before Thanksgiving that his agency didn't have the money to proceed on the bridges, this was within a day that Brown said work would proceed and weeks of saying bids would go out in December, which didn't happen. Then in January, when bids were opened, only one contractor bid on the Biloxi project out of three MDOT had hand-picked to bid on the projects.
MDOT never opened the bidding to contractors in general. MDOT never got an accurate estimate on the cost of their bridge work. Brown had said in December that he expected both the Biloxi and Bay St. Louis bridges to cost just less than $200 million each. But the bids came in at $266.8 million for the Bay of St. Louis bridge and $274.9 million for the Biloxi Bay bridge. Typically, bids that far off from expectations results in projects being rebid. But not this time.
Governor Haley Barbour was successful in early in January in getting more than $650 million from Congress to rebuild the bridges and for other Katrina-related road repairs, which will pay for the excess cost. But since MDOT didn't use a competitive bid process, and there is more federal money that was not part of part of the initial cost estimates, MDOT has a reason to see the bridge projects expanded, it gets a piece of the pie for their own use. Since there is more money, MDOT has a reason to want it.
This is not as far fetched as you might first suppose. MDOT makes money on the contracts it issues. MDOT collects for itself as much as 16.7 percent contract management fee for the projects it undertakes. The price for the two bridges came in at $541.7 million, this would fill MDOT's own coffers by a whopping $90.4 million. This isn't money MDOT would use for roads, but money to use for anything it wants, new luxury office buildings, helicopters, anything. These things are what MDOT has used its surplus money for already.
MDOT is run by three elected commissioners divided into three geographic regions, the northern district, central district and southerner district. MDOT is sole transportation district in the nation that is organized this way. The agency is independent from the legislature and the governor. And while the federal government provides most of its funding perhaps thinking it is for the whole state, MDOT operates more like a fiefdom of three kings, who spend the money where it benefits their next election, not the actual road needs of the state.
Their rhetoric is persuasive and delivered with authority, but any examination of MDOT's performance record and use of resources has shown this is an agency in bad need of reorganization and reform, if not a federal investigation.
MDOT- Who Will Change It? - GCN Guest Editorial - Royce Hignight