on Biloxi Bridge Has Far-Reaching Impact
The Coast Guard on Feb.21, released its recommendations for the new Biloxi-Ocean Springs Bridge saying that the structure does not have to have a draw span. The Coast guard also said that the bridge would have to be at least 85 feet high and 150 feet wide.
Last month, the Mississippi Department of Transportation's plan to build a huge ten-lane bridge to replace the bridge destroyed by Hurricane Katrina was stalled when the area's shipbuilding industry, the Harrison County Development Commission, and the Mississippi Development Authority notified MDOT that a drawspan was critical to the future economic interests of the area. MDOT's planned bridge did not include a drawspan. The Coast Guard appears to have ignored federal laws that say bridges cannot be built that interfere with navigatable waterways.
This decision will impact future bridges on Biloxi's Back Bay, including a new North-South Connector bridge planned for Biloxi. The height issue also affects a key Mississippi Power electrical transmission line that runs across Back Bay to Biloxi just north of the Imperial Palace Casino. Mississippi Power is already considering raising the line, or submerging it to comply with the height needs.
There is already plans underway to build another bridge across Biloxi' Back Bay. It is another MDOT fiasco that has been stalled for years. That project is the East Biloxi Connector to Interstate 10, also called the North South Connector.
The proposed North South Connector bridge, which MDOT calls "H Route" is a bridge route that starts at the Woolmarket exit on Interstate 10 and meanders through the Tchoutacabouffa River basin, then across several major North Biloxi neighborhoods, and then across Back Bay to Hiller Park and finally to Highway 90. This route is one that just before Hurricane Katrina, North Biloxi residents vehemently opposed in a public meeting even though MDOT's Southern District Highway Commissioner Wayne Brown said it enjoyed the support of the city.
But this project is not likely ever to go forward. According to Claiborne Barnwell, of MDOT's Environmental Division, the proposed bridge for the H-Route has also been designed without a drawspan, but is another high-rise bridge such as the one MDOT wants for the Biloxi-Ocean Springs bridge.
"I think the Coast Guard's decision on the Biloxi-Ocean Springs bridge will impact this project," Barnwell told GCN in an interview.
Barnwell goes on to say that MDOT had plans get a contractor for the Woolmarket (Route H) project to see what would be involved in building that route, but that appears to be at a standstill. MDOT had also planned to make some right-of-way land purchases, but that has never happened.
Barnwell has extensive involvement with the Biloxi bridge projects and attended numerous meetings both with the public and city officials over the Biloxi North South Connector in the 1990's. His office is also responsible for any environmental studies a bridge project would require.
For nearly 30 years, Biloxi has sought another bridge across Back Bay. The recent charrette studies recommended another bridge to help the city deal with future traffic. The charrette studies indicated that more bridges, instead of MDOT's huge ten-lane bridge, would be more beneficial to the city. But the charrette experts reported that a bridge that fed the Cedar Lake interchange at I-10 would be more beneficial than the Woolmarket Connector project.
Any new bridge across the Bay for Biloxi has been long in coming. And since MDOT first survey for the Woolmarket (Route H), back in the 1990's conditions and land use have change. Much of the area that was once empty land has been developed. In fact, Barnwell says that the developments have likely made that project entirely unfeasible as land acquisition costs would be too high. Even without the developments, Barnwell said that their estimates for the costs of building the Woolmarket Connector would likely exceed $400 to 500 million and that is without a drawbridge, which may be required depending on the Coast's Guard's decision on the Biloxi-Ocean Springs bridge. The high cost also are a detriment to that route.
There are other factors also negatively effecting the Woolmarket Connector, and that is the condominium developments and apartment developments now underway on the central beach Biloxi peninsula, which would also stand in the bridge's way. There are also difficult environmental considerations in building around the river and nearby marshes.
In a real sense, the Woolmarket Connector (Route H) cannot and will not be built, even though MDOT has spent at least several million dollars in preliminary work. This can be seen now as a wasted effort if not another MDOT boondoggle. The Coast has also lost nearly a decade in getting a badly need bridge built. Biloxi's acceptance of this plan in 2001 by the City Council and Mayor A.J. Holloway also contributed to the delay in getting a bridge. The city's leaders ignored their own planning commission, which recommended another route.
Biloxi resident Royce Hignight, who has been following road issues in Biloxi, made a personal report to the city council Sept. 11, 2001 regarding the Woolmarket Connector. At that meeting he said that he prepared a booklet that revealed how MDOT had misled this community; how MDOT was under severe criticism by the legislature, and the PEER Committee; how MDOT had overspent, including all of the Gaming Road Program funds and didn’t have funds for any kind of road; that MDOT was untrustworthy as indicated by its own public record.
"I told them that acceptance of the MDOT plan was diametrically opposed to the desires of the community; that a vote for the MDOT plan was tantamount to a no-vote for a north-south route because MDOT had no funds for such a route," Hignight said.
However, the majority of the council in 2001 chose to vote for the MDOT Woolmarket Connector plan as follows:
Voting Yes: Jim Compton
Voting No: Tom Wall
Hignight further says that Councilman Tom Wall said of the vote: “They (the Citizens Corridor Committee, which studied the MDOT route) were manhandled and used by MDOT representatives.” Wall pointed out that the committee had favored the route favored by Wayne Brown. He also said most people in Biloxi want a surface-level highway that would tie into Cedar Lake Road at I-10.
What is doable, and potentially much less expensive is the Cedar Lake Connector, or what has been called, the Rodenberg Bridge.
That bridge would go due north from Rodenberg Avenue, which is just west of Keesler's Gate 7; then across the Back Bay to Cedar Lake Road, which is almost due north of Rodenberg. This route has been the choice of numerous studies by Biloxi and was part of the City's Vision 2020 plan and the disbanded Harrison County Transportation Authority. That route was also supported in previous studies going back into the 1980's. It is also more recently mentioned by the transportation experts with Governor Haley Barbour's Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal Commission.
But in the past, the main opposition for the Rodenberg, Cedar Lake bridge by MDOT and the City of Biloxi has been the alleged opposition by Keesler A.F.B. MDOT proposed an expensive elevated six-lane highway much like what they have proposed for replacing the Biloxi-Ocean Springs bridge destroyed by Katrina. That size bridge is not what is needed.
A portion of base housing is at the north end of Rodenberg Ave. including the Base Commander's home. But that has changed as a result of Hurricane Katrina and with what a new Biloxi will be like in the near future.
Katrina destroyed over 1,000 of Keesler's housing units. Most of them along Back Bay including the general's home. This means Keesler will need to rebuild the homes, either in an area that is now known to flood, or build them somewhere else. As most of the available non-flooding land on the Biloxi peninsula is already taken, almost all new homes are being built in North Biloxi, where higher land is available.
If Keesler were to replace their Katrina-destroyed homes with new homes on higher ground across the Biloxi Bay, that would open the possibility of the Rodenberg Bridge. It could also help strengthen Keesler from possible future base cutbacks as the base would have a bridge immediately to the west with access to their employees homes in North Biloxi. Many of Keesler's personnel already have homes there and have long commute times, which would be eliminated with a bridge at Rodenburg to Cedar Lake Road.
Keesler's future viability in a day of numerous base closures, can't help but be enhanced with a major nearby access bridge. At this time, the Coast's housing shortage and the lack of military housing, has prevented Keesler from bringing back nearly half of its normal full-time personnel that were evacuated before Katrina. There is no where for them to live. Some in Washington could see this as proof that Keesler could be downsized.
In addition, Biloxi's future of as many as 20 huge casino resorts and numerous highrise condominiums and retail areas will dramatically increase traffic demands on the Biloxi peninsula, which can only be offset with another north south bridge across Back Bay. As everyone has also discovered, an additional north south route, especially for Keesler's future viability, and hurricane evacuation, is needed. The existing I-110 bridge cannot handle even the current traffic load without major delays.
Keesler, therefore, can play a huge role in the future of Biloxi and the Coast in opening the door to the city's transportation needs and redevelopment. If Keesler officials would support a bridge at Rodenberg, Barnwell says MDOT would build it. Barnwell said that MDOT would work with Keesler to find appropriate trade out property.
The Rodenberg Bridge to the Cedar Lake Road I-10 interchange would also form the beginning of another evacuation route to the new four-lane Highway 67, which is just north of Cedar Lake Road and is planned for completion in late 2006.
While everyone has been focused on the Biloxi Bay and Bay St. Louis bridges and what those projects mean for the Coast, it is the future of Biloxi that is being discussed and that future has to include another bridge.
(The aerial photograph used on MDOT's website to show the H-Route shown left is out of date. GCN marked the photo where the Rodenberg Bridge would go.)
The Coast Guard will eventually rule on the drawspan issue for the Biloxi Ocean Springs U.S. 90 bridge. While MDOT has not proven to be effective in helping with the Coast's transportation needs, or in moving quickly to rebuild the Biloxi Ocean Springs bridge, that is no reason to believe than another bridge cannot be on the table at this time.
A bridge at Rodenberg to Cedar Lake would provide another key route for evacuations during hurricanes and provide almost a direct route to the new Biloxi High School, cutting the time it would take to get students to class. It would also provide fast access for Keesler personnel, most of which live in North Biloxi across the Bay.
Funding for any major project is difficult, but the Coast has the attention of the federal government and a commitment from the U.S. Transportation Secretary to help. GCN has talked with Keesler officials briefly on their housing situation and the Rodenberg Bridge, but such a project will need community support.
The time for that support, and from Keesler, is now.