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MDOT Finding Little Support for U.S. 90 Bridge Plan

Wed February 15, 2006 - Southeast Edition
CEG



BILOXI, MS (AP) More criticism has emerged for the Mississippi Department of Transportation’s (MDOT) plans for a new U.S. 90 bridge to link Ocean Springs and Biloxi.

The U.S. Coast Guard has asked MDOT to address concerns raised by Gulfport shipbuilders and the Harrison County Development Commission over plans for a six-lane, 85-ft. tall bridge.

The shipbuilders and county commission said the design of the bridge should permit higher clearance using a drawspan because, in the future, new ships built on the coast might be too tall for the proposed MDOT bridge.

Transportation Commissioner Wayne Brown, who represents south Mississippi on the three-member board, said if MDOT is forced to go back to the drawing board and add a drawbridge, it could delay the desperately needed bridge “by another year to a year and a half.”

He said it could cost $70 million to $80 million more than MDOT has for the federally funded project and the delay also would hamper the casino industry because gambling companies are trying to schedule the construction of shore-based casinos to the opening of a new bridge.

State Rep. Jim Simpson, R-Pass Christian, was not happy with Brown’s response.

“If it only took 90 days for MDOT to rush and get this project out for bid, how on earth could it take a year and a half to change it? I just don’t believe that,” Simpson said.

State Sen. Billy Hewes III, R-Biloxi, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said Brown’s comments stems “from what has typified MDOT’s standard operating procedure for a number of years.”

“Once they get a head of steam with a project and their minds made up, they don’t want to stop and listen to anything or anyone,” Hewes said.

Harrison County Development Commissioner Henry Kinney said the year-and-a-half delay sounds like a threat.

“I challenge anybody on the year and a half and on the $80 million,” Kinney said. “Just logic says it wouldn’t take that much longer or cost that much more.”

Brown said MDOT’s chief engineer sent out 40 letters requesting information before putting its plan together.

“The Coast Guard had given us the height it wanted,” Brown said.

But several coast leaders asked, “Where were these letters sent?”

William Smith III, vice president of Trinity Yachts, said, “We just assumed there would be a drawbridge, like there was before.” He said that “unlimited access to the ocean” through a drawbridge was one reason Trinity relocated its burgeoning yacht-building operations from Louisiana to Gulfport after Katrina, creating hundreds of new jobs.

MDOT leaders had been saying for weeks that their design had been approved by all relevant agencies.

When MDOT opened bids for the bridge Jan. 23, only one construction company was interested. Its proposal was not only $75 million above MDOT’s estimated $200 million cost, the bid might not be acceptable or enforceable because the same company won the bid to rebuild the Bay St. Louis Bridge.

MDOT included a clause in its agreement that in such case as a company won both, it could pick which one it preferred to do. The company said it prefers the Bay St. Louis bridge.

Kinney said, “You can’t be real proud of a bidding process where you only got one bidder.”

Brown said the drawbridge issue is about economic development, not bridge design and building, and it’s up to the governor, the Mississippi Development Authority or Congress to find a solution, not MDOT.

“In looking at it. We realize this is no longer a transportation issue,” Brown said. “We don’t have the funding … Those people [on the coast] would have to continue making that 10-mile detour … It’s a decision I don’t think MDOT is equipped to make.”

The head of Northrop Grumman Ship Systems has written a letter to Gov. Haley Barbour asking that a drawbridge be added to plans. Phil Teel said in the letter that the design of the bridge should permit higher clearance using a drawspan, a removable span or other method “so there would be no limit to our future business at our Gulfport operation.”

Teel said last week that Northrop Grumman “will build a new class of ships for the United States Coast Guard, as well as the entire deckhouse superstructure for the DD(X) Class of advanced destroyers.”

Barbour has no control over MDOT. It is run by MDOT Director Butch Brown with oversight from a three-member elected commission.

Initial criticism of the replacement bridge came from supporters of plans to turn U.S. 90 into a slow-moving, pedestrian-friendly, scenic boulevard. Later, the economic development issues were raised.