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Is MDOT Shortchanging the Coast with its
Biloxi-Ocean Springs Bridge?

by Keith Burton - GulfCoastNews.com    Filed 2/3/06      GCN Special Report

In the rush to get a new bridge across Biloxi bay to Ocean Springs, everyone wants to believe that the Mississippi Department of Transportation is doing the right thing. That they have a bridge design that works for the Coast and that it is a good deal.

It is far from the truth. MDOT has proposed a bridge, for which not a single artist's rendering has been made public. We know now that it will be at least a 95 foot high concrete monster at a cost perhaps as much as $300 million. An 85 foot high bridge planned by MDOT was recently bid at $275 million. Efforts to get a bridge with a drawspan that would help the Coast's shipbuilding industry recently failed. But no one knows what MDOT's bridge looks like.

So, are we getting a good value for the money and work MDOT has outlined? After all, everyone believes in the integrity of MDOT. Right?

The image left is NOT MDOT's bridge, but a new bridge planned by the Louisiana Department of Transportation, the same agency that rebuilt the I-10 Lake Ponchartrain bridge damaged from Katrina in just weeks.

The image (left) is an artist's rendering of a new Mississippi River bridge that will cost Louisiana $334.7 million to design and build to link West Feliciana and Pointe Coupee parishes. A bid on the bridge was submitted March 2, by a consortium called the Audubon Bridge Constructors Joint Venture. In this rendering of the proposed span, Big Cajun 2 power plant in Pointe Coupee is in the left background.

This graceful cable-stay bridge would be a welcome sight for our area too if it would be built here. Several months ago GCN asked Southern District Highway Commissioner Wayne Brown if a similar cable-stay bridge could be built here. He said it was  too costly. Perhaps money in Louisiana goes farther.

While the "battle" over the Biloxi-Ocean Springs bridge has been very visible, the reality is that even after all of the comments and commentary, and supposed "delays," very little in known about what MDOT is really going to build.

The problem in Mississippi is that MDOT is the only place you can generally get information about roads and bridges and what they cost. Politicians and business leaders take every statement from MDOT, its commissioners and director as gospel. But this is an agency that has a history of deception, its own agenda, and says what it needs to placate the news media and citizens.

MDOT did not open the Biloxi-Ocean Spring bridge or Bay St. Louis bridge to a competitive bid and design process. They never held any official public hearings, but met with area city councils and boards of supervisors, often in private meetings or in a meeting that was open to the public, but not specifically called to get comments on the bridge. These are not a public hearings. This meant MDOT could look like they are holding public meetings, but not have to take records and statements, or even provide details. GCN has talked to officials, politicians and business people who seemed to have been convinced that MDOT held public hearings even though no such hearings took place.

Why hasn't MDOT publicly shown an artist's rendering of the bridge that will be used for 75 years? Are they trying to hide something? While the Coast's economic redevelopment must have this bridge built, Louisiana's transportation department, a state known for political problems, seems to have a better vision and get more done with its money than MDOT.

So far, nothing opponents to the bridge have done have delayed work at any point on the Biloxi-Ocean Springs bridge. It has been MDOT's actions alone. The recent Coast Guard review was a normal routine matter, and not a delay. The fact that the Federal Highway Administration has ordered MDOT to rebid the project is the result of how MDOT has handled this issue. MDOT's efforts to blame-shift their actions are just self serving posturing.

The Biloxi bridge is intended to serve the Coast's transportation needs for 75 years. It needs to be built with that in mind. Failure to do so will handicap the Coast's economic future. While replacing the bridge needs to be expedited, the Coast cannot afford a mistake on such a major issue.

The federal government has promised to finance the new Biloxi bridge, but are taxpayers getting what they are paying for? Biloxi must have a bridge, and work could have started sooner.

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