COLUMBUS, Miss. (AP) In troubled economic times, what Lowndes County needs is a bridge over busy waters.
Or better yet, two bridges. At no cost locally. And for a Columbus contractor to win the job just as a Lowndes County industry expands.
Things are looking up.
Phillips Contracting Co. will start building two brand new bridges in May west of the Lowndes County Port, complete with a new stretch of road off old Highway 82, now known as Highway 182, with $2.9 million in funds appropriated by the Mississippi Department of Transportation.
Around the same time, Severstal plans to double its production and traffic through the port’s West Bank.
The bridges will be constructed directly to the south of two old bridges along Old Highway 82 just west of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway.
The old bridges were constructed to handle just 57,000 lbs. (25,855 kg) at a time, instead of the 80,000-lb. (36,287 kg) capacity that is standard today. The new bridges will be capable of handling 88,000-lb. (39,916 kg) loads.
“That’s hampered the port to some degree,” said John Hardy, Lowndes County Port director. “So The [Columbus-Lowndes Development] Link, the [Tennessee-Tombigbee] Waterway [Development Authority] and the port began mounting an effort to get those bridges replaced; especially since Severstal is expanding and expect to double their capacity.”
Mike Tagert, administrator of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway Authority, said the new bridges will benefit the port in the short term by accommodating Severstal’s expansion, but also could draw attention from new businesses.
“The reason we’re so interested in this is it’s going to greatly increase the ability of the port long term to do what we want to do. There are development sites on that side of the river that this increases their marketability. Maybe we can bring in another major manufacturer,” said Tagert.
Plus it adds to the prestige of Lowndes County being the only port in Mississippi operating on both sides of a major river.
Tagert said MDOT was eager to assist with the bridge project because industries look for diversity in transportation.
“The intermodal connectivity of water, road and rail have been a big emphasis, and in transportation, that’s not easily found,” he said.
Charlie Furman, external relations manager of Severstal, said the increased bridge capacity will be right on time for the company’s expansion. By the end of 2011, Severstal hopes to increase its capacity from melting 1.7 million tons of steel each year to 3.4 million tons, which will result in approximately 100 new jobs.
Severstal has been driving over the old bridges without a problem and will continue to use the old bridges until the new bridges are opened, but their time is limited.
“The highway department told us they didn’t think [the old bridges] would hold up for continued use. With the existing scrap load doubled, replacing those bridges was going to be even more important,” said Joe Higgins, president of the Columbus-Lowndes Development Link.
Bob Phillips, of Phillips Contracting, said the bridge project has been in the works for the past three years but wasn’t awarded until late March. One sticking point was increased erosion control measures put in place by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“Local officials worked hard to get this project to construction in a relatively short period of time,” said Phillips. “Everyone thinks you can lean on a politician and get a bridge built, but it’s a long process.”
Phillips’ team will begin work this May with a target completion date of May 31, 2011. Phillips will be responsible for taking down the old bridges after opening the new ones.
He said about half of the work will be subcontracted, but two of the subcontractors are Columbus companies. The others are Mississippi companies.
With less room for further expansion on the east side of the port, the west side could see significant growth.
“That’s not to say the east bank port won’t grow,” said Hardy. “But the west bank port is so much closer to what they’re doing out there with all the developments around the airport.”