JACKSON, MS (AP) Mississippi’s top economic development official is opposed to a six-lane bridge on U.S. 90 to link Biloxi to Ocean Springs.
The new span would replace a four-lane bridge that was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina on Aug. 29.
Leland Speed, executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority, said the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) proposal is in conflict with plans promoted by the Governor’s Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal.
The commission, appointed by Gov. Haley Barbour to work with local communities to rebuild after Katrina, has proposed that U.S. 90 become a scenic boulevard. Building a larger bridge will only increase traffic on the coast’s most valuable real estate, making it the equivalent to “sitting on the shoulder of I-10,” Speed said.
“We have a beautiful plan, and quite frankly, this impairs that plan dramatically,” he said.
MDOT executive director Butch Brown said the bridge plan will not increase traffic along U.S. 90. The coastal highway already has six lanes of traffic at either end, and prior to the storm, the design led traffic into an unsafe bottleneck at the bridge, he said.
“All studies show that bridge, when constructed, should be a six-lane bridge,” he said. “We’re not doing anything to add traffic to Highway 90.”
Brown said plans to build 15,000 to 20,000 new condominiums along that stretch will speed the increase in traffic and the bridge must be redesigned to accommodate that growth or U.S. 90 will be gridlocked.
Ocean Springs Mayor Connie Moran, who met Jan. 3 with state and federal highway officials, supports a four-lane bridge. She has questioned MDOT’s traffic projections.
Moran said MDOT has made this decision without considering the possible construction of other major east-west roads or the redevelopment of the coast as a result of the hurricane.
“We could go with an emergency bridge so we could do something so we don’t have to make a knee-jerk reaction,” she said.
Brown said the meeting with Moran changed nothing.
“The traffic is there,” he said.
MDOT will accept proposals for the bridge this month and award a contract by Feb. 3. The project will be paid for out of the $2.8 billion Congress set aside to repair transportation infrastructure damaged by Katrina.
After meeting with Moran, MDOT agreed to take a look at independent studies presented by the mayor and give Ocean Springs a response.
“We’re trying to be as helpful as possible,” MDOT traffic engineer Jeff Altman said. “We promised the mayor we’d go back and take a look at some different things.”
Federal Highway Administration Division Administrator Andrew Hughes said the ball was in MDOT’s court.
“It’s their project,” he said. “They can do what they want.”
Meanwhile, Harrison County Development Commission Executive Director Larry Barnett said in a letter to MDOT in October that building a bridge without a drawbridge could limit commerce along the Industrial Seaway.
Trinity Yacht LLC bought VT Halter Marine’s former property and its plans could challenge the limits of the proposed 85-ft. bridge.
“We’re seeing the future coming about as they build these mega-yachts. The heights they are going to be built at, it’s going to limit what they can build if we put a fixed span at the very last bridge before they get into open water,” Barnett said.
Southern District Transportation Commissioner Wayne Brown said Barnett’s letter wasn’t brought to anybody’s attention.
“To build the kind of bridge that would accommodate their request would take a great deal of money,” Brown said. “It would delay the project and would put a future maintenance cost on us. It’s something that’s got to be weighed.”
Trinity Yachts could employ as many as 500 shipbuilders at its second shipyard. The Gulfport yard has more than nine acres of covered building area on 50 acres of property, which would allow it to double its output and build larger ships.
Trinity also has a 38-acre shipyard in New Orleans with 10 covered acres where it can build as many as 10 mega-yachts a year with a length of 400 ft. and up to five decks.
Northrop Grumman already has a facility along Seaway Road that specializes in building composite components, including tall masts, for warships like its destroyer built in Pascagoula. Former tenants in the area also built large ships, cranes and rigs that might not be viable with no outlet to open water.
Barnett said if a drawbridge was added, it could allow a shorter bridge to be built.
Instead of an 85-ft. high bridge, he said one 65 ft. high would allow daily boat traffic to pass underneath, but a drawbridge could be opened by appointment only in non-peak traffic hours.