Federal Maritime Law May Be Violated if MDOT Builds New Biloxi-Ocean Springs Bridge Without Drawspan
by Keith Burton - GCN
Since shortly after Hurricane Katrina, MDOT has said that it planned to rebuild the damaged Bay St. Louis and Biloxi-Ocean Springs bridges without a drawspan, which the former bridges had. But to do so will violate Federal Maritime Law.
Recently, both the Harrison County Development Commission and the Mississippi Development Authority went on record saying that MDOT's plan to build new bridges with nearly 100 feet of height and no drawspan would not be adequate.
Federal Maritime Law prohibits the building of bridges "...that shall at any time unreasonably obstruct the free navigation of the waters over which it is constructed..." The law further states that any impeding structure, if constructed, "...shall be removed at the expense of the persons owning or operating said bridge."
MDOT's proposed bridges at either end of Harrison County would restrict needed height requirements for shipbuilding in Harrison and Hancock Counties.
With the notice by the HCDC and the MDA, officials with MDOT are now aware that building bridges without drawspans would adversely effect the Coast's navigational requirements, triggering the federal law. As a result, it now appears likely that MDOT will have to reconsider its plans. Not to do so, could result in further delays in replacing the bridges and certainly impact the future of some key Coast industries, which are major employers that must have a clear access waterway. One example recently cited is that of Trinity Yachts in Gulfport. It is one of two shipyards bidding on a 300-foot mega-yacht that would require 110- to 120-feet clearance when it would be taken to open water by barge. It sees a future workforce of 700-750 people building larger yachts.
The fact that MDOT refuses to acknowledge that their bridge proposals do not meet the Coast's true needs now must be questioned by all public and governmental officials. MDOT's continuous lack of awareness can only impede the rebuilding of these bridges as it clear that a growing number of issues now cloud MDOT's plans.
In a time when Louisiana's transportation department has rebuilt the Katrina-damaged I-10 bridge over Lake Pontchartrain, MDOT's lack of performance over the Coast's two bridges is truly damming and already represents a major failure in the state's post-Katrina recovery effort. Even the best current estimates place the opening of MDOT's new bridges nearly two years away. At the current rate and in light of ever-increasing issues, this estimate is optimistic.
Coast residents and businesses, including the casino industry need to be alarmed at MDOT's progress and have reason now to question MDOT's public statements on its efforts.
Meanwhile, GCN has learned that the Harrison County Board of Supervisors will likely add their voice to request MDOT to add drawspans in their proposed Biloxi-Ocean Spring and Bay St. Louis bridges. In an interview with GCN on Jan. 9, District 2 Supervisor Larry Benefield said that the county must have drawspans and that the board initially was under the impression from MDOT that drawspans would be included.
"I can't imagine that we build a bridge without drawspans, " Benefield said. "I think you will see us make a decision on the drawspans."
Benefield, who is also the board's vice-president, said it is in the best interests of the county that the new bridges have drawspans to allow for future economic development of the county.