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Biloxi Mayor Disappointed Over MDOT Delay on Biloxi-Ocean Springs Bridge

by Keith Burton       GCN - 11/24/05

Just what is going on with Wayne Brown, the Southern District Transportation Commissioner? With no warning Wednesday, and after weeks of talking about rebuilding the Biloxi-Ocean Springs bridge, Brown announced that his department was now out of money from Katrina repairs to date and needed a federal infusion of cash before bids could go out to contractors.

This news was a complete surprise to everyone, including Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway and the local newspaper which had just interviewed Brown a day earlier. It seems that Brown didn't know when he was interviewed by the newspaper that his agency was out of money.

Mayor A.J. Holloway says was disappointed by Brown's Wednesday announcement that the start of work on a new U.S. 90 bridge linking Biloxi and Ocean Springs will not begin for at least a month. As a result, Holloway fired off emails to ask members of the state’s congressional delegation to help speed things along.

 "We're having to take some hard looks. One of the things we're unfortunately having to do is delay the Biloxi bridge and the Bay of St. Louis bridge until January," said Brown In a WLOX TV news report Wednesday evening.

In a late Wednesday afternoon news release (Nov. 23)  from Biloxi, Brown reportedly told Holloway  that MDOT needs federal reimbursement of more than $100 million it has spent on hurricane-related repairs before it could award a contract to begin the bridge work.

The bridge had been scheduled to partially open for Thanksgiving ’06.

“I’m going to pursue the same course as I followed on the Popp’s Ferry bridge,” said Holloway, who was able to secure funding from the Federal Highway Administration through MDOT for work on the west Biloxi bridge.

Holloway e-mailed Mississippi Sens. Trent Lott and Thad Cochran and Rep. Gene Taylor shortly after Brown delivered the news about the delay in beginning work.

Said Holloway: “Senators Lott and Cochran and Rep. Taylor realize that getting started on a new Biloxi-Ocean Springs bridge is vital for us to continue our recovery efforts, and I suspect they’re going to use their influence to get this project funded and underway.”

Brown's announcement, the day before the Thanksgiving holiday when the news media cannot easily find public officials, has the feel of an intentional decision to sidestep the impact of his news. His announcement was timed when most Coast residents are busy preparing for the Thanksgiving holiday and not paying attention to the news. Brown surely should have know for weeks that he didn't have the money. In his interview on WLOX TV, Brown speculated that the bids might go out in January. But his performance so far suggests that he was only speculating since no specific date was mentioned, nor asked for by the WLOX reporter. And if Brown did not know about his agency's finances until Wednesday, then it suggests a serious management failure.

In addition, efforts to bring the state's congressional delegation into play, at this late date, months after Hurricane Katrina and right before the Christmas holiday break for Congress, will likely make it difficult for the the Congressional delegation of Senators Trent Lott, and Thad Cochran, as well as Congressman Gene Taylor to act before Congress goes home. In addition, Brown's announcement comes when Governor Haley Barbour is out of state on a trip to Iraq to visit Mississippi troops. Brown made his announcement when he thought he was safe to do so.

Brown's announcement of no money also applies to the work needed to repair the Highway 90 Bay St. Louis bridge (photo right). In effect, Brown has added weeks, if not months to when work to repair the bridges will get started.

Many people are already questioning why Brown has not  started to remove the collapsed sections of the bridge. In Louisiana, that state's repairs to the I-10 bridge across Lake Ponchartrain west of Slidell are well underway.

Brown and MDOT in general have been widely criticized for months for being monolithic and unresponsive to the public and to the road needs of the Coast. GCN has reported in the past about MDOT's outdated and ill-conceived plans for a North-South connector to Biloxi, and more recently, over MDOT's planned six-lane bridge to replace the Biloxi-Ocean Springs bridge.

The Sun Herald reported in their Nov. 23 issue that Ocean Springs Mayor Connie Moran  feels Brown and MDOT are trying to cram MDOT's proposed high-rise, six-lane bridge down the city's throat. But that story made no mention of MDOT's sudden money woes.

In a story posted late in the afternoon on November 23rd on the Sun Herald's website, the newspaper reported that Brown blames the budget stalled in Congress for the reason his agency is out of money. While this could be true, the stalled budget is not a new issue, and certainly one that Brown could have mentioned as earlier as a concern way before his announcement.

What is becoming very clear is that Wayne Brown, and MDOT, may not actually have the Coast's best interests in mind. There seems to be a pattern developing that Brown will say most anything to satiate Coast leaders, but not deliver on the big promises. The need for new bridges and roads for both for Biloxi and Bay St. Louis are more than critical. The bridges and roads are the arteries of the Coast's economy, and at this time, when the Coast is suffering the most, Brown's management of a serious crisis is becoming more like a heart attack.

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