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Coast Guard Approval of MDOT's Biloxi Bridge Did Not Include Opposition Documents

by Keith Burton - GCN 2/22/06

GCN has confirmed that the the Coast Guard's decision to approve MDOT's Biloxi bridge without a drawspan was made with incomplete information.

An official with the Coast Guard's Bridge Administration Brach in New Orleans confirmed Wednesday with GCN that the package of information provided to them did not include documents from those that questioned MDOT's planned Biloxi-Ocean Springs bridge.

The Coast Guard did not receive information that Mississippi Power is studying submerging its power line near the bridge and that Senator Trent Lott had filed a bill to deepen the channel. The Coast Guard did not know about the desire of Gov. Haley Barbour that the bridge be built with a draw span. Nor did they receive any documents from the Mississippi Development Authority that expressed the agency's public opposition to MDOT's bridge.

"We did not receive any documents from Northrop-Grumman, the Mississippi Development Authority, or from the Governor," said Marcus Redford, chief of the Bridge Administration Branch of the Coast Guard in New Orleans. Redford is a civilian and not a uniformed Coast Guard member.

Redford said his agency did receive a letter from the Harrison County Development Commission that mentioned Northrop-Grumman and Trinity Marine, the two shipbuilders that want a draw span for the bridge, but Redford said the HCDC letter did not go into any significant detail.

Redford told GCN that the opponents to the bridge should have sent more information and participated in the public hearings. Redford was seemed surprised to learn that MDOT has  never held a formal public hearing on their bridge proposals.

There is the possibility that since MDOT held no public hearings, it may not have had a legal reason to submit opposition comments to the Coast Guard. In a real sense, MDOT used the Coast Guard to get a stamp of official approval on their bridge.

But the lack of opposition documentation sent to the Coast Guard introduces many questions. For example, did the Governor's office, or the Mississippi Development Authority send letters to reflect their public comments? Did Sen. Trent Lott's office send documents? Were there any citizen comments sent? GCN contacted the agencies involved Wednesday but has not received a response at the time of this report.

"I will check on this," said Pete Smith, Governor Haley Barbour's spokesman.

It appears that the comments regarding the need for the draw bridge may have been nothing more than public officials saying what their powerful shipbuilding constituents wanted to hear.

Nevertheless, Redford said he made his decision based upon the material he had in front of him.

But if the opposition information was held by MDOT and not provided to the Coast Guard, then there may be questions raised on the whole process.

The Coast Guard released its recommendations for the new Biloxi-Ocean Springs Bridge Tuesday. Biloxi Mayor A. J. Holloway received a call from MDOT just before the Tuesday city council meeting that the Coast Guard said the bridge must be at least 85 feet high and 150 feet wide, and does not have to include a draw span.

Redford told GCN that the Coast Guard made no recommendation regarding the width of the bridge, only the height. Redford further stated that the Coast Guard's decision does not reflect a recommendation of a bridge, but only that involving the height of the bridge as presented by MDOT. He said MDOT could could come back with another plan if it wanted. And if MDOT wanted to add to the height, that would not require another review as the Coast Guard's recommendations are the minimum that would have been required for the type of bridge outlined by MDOT.

MDOT has no drawings or architectural renderings of their proposed Biloxi Bridge. They have held no formal public hearings, conducted no traffic studies, made no formal study of the true costs and options available, and have received no competitive bids. MDOT is using what is called the "design-build' method of construction wherein the contractor designs, engineers and builds the entire project. At this point in the process, which is a first use of design build in Mississippi, the public has not seen a rendering of the structure that will define the Coast's economic future for at least the next two generations.

Northrop-Grumman and Trinity Marine said their plans needed a draw bridge for the large vessels they plan to build at the Harrison County Industrial Park. While that work has not begun, they said they needed at least 116 feet or more of clearance that would be best met by a draw bridge. Thousands of high paying shipbuilding jobs are likely to be lost if draw bridge issue isn't resolved.

MDOT's Wayne Brown  said this week they could go as high as 95 feet as a compromise. But the sole contractor that has bid on the MDOT bridge may not have accommodated a bridge of that height in his proposed price, and the project might have to go out for another bid.

While many Coast residents and politicians just want to see the bridge fixed, the bridge is more than a convenience of transportation. It is a major key to the future development of the Coast. Transportation experts from the Governor's charrette's and many Biloxi residents who have followed the issue say Biloxi's transportation needs would be better served with more bridges, not larger bridges.

The Coast will need a superior transportation network to be the tourist and entertainment destination it will become, but many people who are knowledgeable about these needs doubt that MDOT's methods will deliver the superior transportation system that the Coast's future will require.

So far, nothing has been done to the Biloxi-Ocean Springs bridge since Katrina tossed it into the bay. There is enough of a structure remaining of the old bridge, however, to provide a temporary bridge while a better solution was found. The repairs to the stretch of I-10 across Louisiana's Lake Ponchartrain by Louisianan's highway department prove that MDOT could have done the same.

Wayne Brown has repeatedly said that the reason the rubble from the bridge is still in the water is that he wants to have the contractor that builds the bridge clean it up and use it for rip rap. Brown has never explained how waiting for months for the rubble to be removed speeds building the bridge.

What is clear is that the reason the Coast doesn't have a bridge right now is not because of public opposition, but because of MDOT's own actions. Expect more delays.


Related:

Decision on Biloxi Bridge Has Far-Reaching Impact, H-Route North/South Connector Dead - GCN Special Report   Updated 2/21/06

MDOT: A History of Deception - Royce Hignight - A GCN Special Report

MDOT Must be Reformed and Reorganized - GCN Editorial 1/22/06 Updated

 

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