MS Motorists Stuck With Five Drawbridges for Now

Fri December 13, 2002 - Southeast Edition

BILOXI, MS (AP) — Motorists may not like waiting while drawbridges open to let boats pass, but they are stuck with the bothersome spans for the foreseeable future.

Although increasing traffic is leading to longer delays, the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) said it has no plans to replace its five drawbridges on the coast with high-rise bridges, aside from the one now under construction in Pascagoula.

In fact, drawbridges like the one that opened in October on Cowan-Lorraine Road often are the only financially viable option in densely populated areas such as Harrison County, where four of MDOT’s five coast drawbridges are located.

Building high-rise bridges in Harrison County would mean buying expensive rights of way from private property owners, unlike in Jackson County, where the approaches to the spans were built largely over marshlands already owned by the state or federal government.

Gulfport officials noted that they would have liked a high-rise bridge instead of the new drawbridge, but the cost for MDOT was prohibitive.

“There’s some high-dollar property down there that would have been extremely expensive to obtain,” said Gulfport Councilman Kim Savant. “You don’t dictate to the state if they are paying.”

Another factor, said Harry Lee James, director of MDOT’s Bridge Department, is that a high-rise bridge “likely would have impacted historical properties between Pass Road and Magnolia Street.”

Harrison County Bridge Superintendent Kevin Romero said high-rise bridges eat up more space than people might think.

“Look at the length of the approaches on the new Pascagoula bridge,” Romero said.

A typical high-rise bridge with 73 ft. (22 m) of vertical clearance will be approximately 1 mi. (1.6 km) long, according to David Miller, a manager in the Louisiana Department of Transportation’s Bridge Design Section.

The price of high-rise bridges has come down, due to advances in technology, said Miller, but they still are more than three times as expensive, on average, than moveable bridges.

The Cowan-Lorraine drawbridge cost approximately $30 million, compared to an expected cost of approximately $50 million for the Pascagoula high-rise bridge, said MDOT engineer Todd Jordan.

But, Jordan said, accurate comparisons are difficult because so many factors influence the price.

Pascagoula has needed a high-rise bridge for decades because of heavy traffic from the Ingalls shipyard and a high volume of marine traffic on the Pascagoula River.

But the main reason Pascagoula got a high-rise bridge and Gulfport didn’t is that Pascagoula received millions in federal money for being a special demonstration project, Jordan said.

“Why did we build a high-rise in Pascagoula? Because we had additional money,” Jordan said.

MDOT officials said the two oldest spans — Bay St. Louis, built in 1953 and Biloxi-Ocean Springs, built in 1961 — are holding up well with regular maintenance.

That’s probably the last thing motorists want to hear after getting stuck one of those bridges on a daily basis during shrimping season. But transportation officials say the coast isn’t unduly burdened with drawbridges compared to other parts of the country.

Florida and Louisiana top the nation in the number of moveable bridges, said the Louisiana DOT’s Miller.

“Just New Orleans alone probably has 15 to 20,”Miller said. “There are lots in the parishes south of the city.”

The long wait may be as much perception as they are reality, said several officials. Even as waiting times are getting longer, some people’s patience is getting shorter, said Pascagoula Mayor Joe Cole, who lobbied hard for a new high-rise bridge in Pascagoula.

“Our lifestyles have changed,” Cole said. “We rush, rush, rush. In years past, you didn’t know any different.”