/Frustration, fears accelerate with no solution in sight for bridge crisis

Frustration, fears accelerate with no solution in sight for bridge crisis

Now that the three county-owned bridges are shut down near their home, they must either drive through the fields on the dirt turnrows, risking costly car damage and ruining farmer’s crops, or use the only county road with an open bridge. This route is approximately 25 miles or 40 minutes one-way. The 45 residents living in the area can’t use the muddy turnrows when it rains. “All of us have flat tires and broken motors from driving in the fields. Cathy Zeigler, who lives two blocks from Gower, said that she had to replace all four tires. “You’re getting stuck if you don’t own a truck.” There is no other way than to drive 40 minutes around the creation to get to town. This closure of 500 bridges that are locally owned and maintained has affected thousands of Mississippians. While some, such as Gower, and his neighbors, have grudgingly reduced the inconveniences, the anxiety and frustration are growing for all. This frustration is a result of years of delay in maintenance, legislators’ inability to pass comprehensive infrastructure funding packages and unresolved political turf battles. All this culminated in April 10, when Gov. Phil Bryant directed the state transportation department close to 100 bridges throughout the state. A bridge close to you may be closed. This was in response to federal inspection mandates, which were established in 2017. These were issued after the Federal Highway Administration found that hundreds of timber-pile bridges in the state were unsafe for travel and had not been properly inspected for many years. Recent polls by NBC News, Survey Monkey and Mississippi Today show that only 36% of respondents believe the state does a good job maintaining bridges and roads. Speaker Philip Gunn was joined by Lt. Governor. Tate Reeves could not agree on a long term infrastructure funding plan. Reeves insisted that counties and cities match state funds to repair local roads and bridges. Negotiations between the two Republican leaders fell apart earlier this year. Gunn, a Clinton Republican, presented a plan to raise the state’s 18.4 percent fuel tax and eliminate the 4 % individual income tax bracket. Democrats claimed that the plan would only redistribute existing revenues and not solve any long-term infrastructure issues. Bryant said that he would be open to a special legislative session in order to address the crisis. However, Gunn and Reeves, his Senate counterpart, will not agree. Gower stated that local drivers who depend on bridges fear more than having to regularly dip into their pockets for gas or expensive repairs. One person is 88. Two other people are in their 80s. Another’s 79. Gower stated that if an ambulance had to leave, we would just have to watch them die.” “The ambulance would arrive as the GPS instructed them. They’d then have to turn around at closed bridges and travel all the way around.” Gower added. It is an emergency when there are so many bridges shut down. Mike Morgan, chairman of the Hinds County Board Supervisors, stated that convenience is not the only thing to be concerned about. “Some people are nearly completely landlocked, and that makes it very concerning when you consider an ambulance or firetruck. That’s because the Mississippi Department of Transportation (and the Office of State Aid Road Construction) is separate agencies, making it difficult to track state and federal transportation funds that flow to these agencies, and then trickle down to local governments. This crisis shows that the problem will not be solved soon without large cash injections. According to several county officials, even though the Legislature gives counties $51 million annually for rural bridge repairs and maintenance, these funds are not sufficient. Executive director of the Mississippi Association of Supervisors, Derrick Surrette said that $50 million will help but not enough to cover the cost of repairs and maintenance. “County budgets have been set, and there is only so much money for roads and bridges. They might be able to move some money around or have enough money in their road fund for repairs of $15,000 to $25,000 each. Many of these projects are worth $250,000 to $500,000, however. Surrette said that even if five to 20 bridges are closed, and the average bridge value is $50,000, it still becomes difficult to manage. Surrette stated that “we have a huge problem at the county and state levels, and we are no closer to finding a solution.” It’s not good.” Mike Duncan, the Pike County road supervisor, was recently seen passing a Enterprise-Journal newspaper headline titled “Supervisors furious over bridge closings” across the table. Duncan, who has been in the same job for 10 years, said that this is how he feels. It’s frustrating. I mean counties. I have spoken to many of them. They are just frustrated by the people coming. Close, close to, close and close again, that’s what they know.” Fernwood Road, in Pike County, was closed due to one of its wooden pilings needing additional support. The pilings were wrapped with an aluminum pancake-like apparatus. Pike County crews still closed the bridge by placing red clay on the bridge’s opposite ends. Duncan isn’t sure when that inspection will take place. He said that the county is constantly working on its 153 bridges, 40 of which have been replaced or repaired since 2010. So he does not understand why officials suddenly declared an emergency. “Obviously, we have deficient bridges. We know that. We are working on that. Duncan stated that we are working on them constantly. Washington County workers worked last week to fix one of three bridges that affected Mack Gower and his neighbours. Gower stated that if the bridge is fixed, the drive to his hometown of Mack Gower, which is only two miles away would be reduced to just 15 minutes. Jesse Amos is the Washington County Supervisor and also owns a trucking business. He said that county officials aren’t sure how they will find the money needed to fix all the bridges closed or maintain the older ones. Amos stated, “Right now we’re discussing what we can do – selling a few bonds or raising taxes or whatever.” To be completely honest, we will have to wait for the Legislature or federal government to come up with money. We won’t be able to keep up. Arthur Perry, Washington County Road Manager, was in Leland last Wednesday talking with Gower and other affected residents about bridge closings. Perry stated that the feds do not care about the people’s livelihood. These bridges are strong. We are all familiar with the effects of heavy rain. These 45 people are the ones who know more than anyone. Mike Morgan, Hinds County Supervisor, agreed. Recent votes by the Hinds Board of Supervisors allowed them to borrow $40 million for road projects and bridge repairs. He stated, “We are not waiting for money to fall out of the sky.” School districts in some counties are having difficulty rerouting buses to avoid closing bridges or to cover the cost of driving new routes. Terry Graham, Jones County School District Transportation Manager, said that after Bryant’s declaration, the district had to scramble to redraw school buses routes in order to address the 29 county bridges that were closed. Graham stated that the 8,600-student school district has more road miles than any other in the state. Graham stated that the Jones County closures affected 41 bus routes. The 41 bus drivers now drive an additional 135 miles per day. He said that school buses average seven miles per gallon diesel, which is a significant amount of money. He said that it was a scramble for our drivers to be able to do what we wanted, and where they should turn around. Graham stated that he tried to make the routes as close as possible to the bridges so students could walk out of the bus or be dropped off at the new stops by parents. However, in many cases students will need to find alternative transportation to school. Graham estimates that no bus route should add more than 20 minutes to a ride. However, when you consider the time it takes to get home from school, this amounts to 40 minutes per day. Although the district does not pick up students at 6 a.m. every day, one route means that students must be picked up by 5:50 a.m. to get to school on time. Students are required to be on time for state testing. Graham stated that “I wouldn’t lie if I claimed I was successful 100% — last week it was difficult, it really was,” Graham added. “But we’ve had better days this week, and I hope that we can continue doing so.” 27 bridges in Amite County, Southwest corner of the state are currently closed. Three of the 18 bus routes in the county’s school district have been given new routes due to the closures. Amite County School district Transportation Director Billy Honea said, “It does impact us.” “It does affect us,” said Amite County School District Transportation Director Billy Honea. Three of the 28 bridges that were closed in Hinds County have affected the Jackson Public Schools District’s routes. Sherwin Johnson, a spokesperson, stated that three of the 28 bridges closed in Hinds County have affected routes in the Jackson Public School District. At the moment, eight bridges in the county of extreme northeast Mississippi are closed. The sheriff’s office received a call in April about a car accident on County Road 604, just west Corinth. Caldwell stated that a deputy was within a mile of the accident at the time the call was received. However, because the bridge was closed, Caldwell had to drive “four to five miles” around the area to reach the accident scene. Caldwell stated that although it was a minor incident and no one was hurt seriously, it was an eye-opener. All bridges that are shut down have an impact. They can affect our ability get to people in emergency situations. Caldwell stated that although we have not had to deal with any major incidents, it is possible. It’s not a good position.” Elizabeth Harris, who lives in Jones County outside Laurel, said that it was not the worst thing that could happen to her. However, she admitted that driving 15 miles an hour to get to the town is not a great idea. It’s not clear if things will improve. “The uncertainty around the when is the most frustrating.” Mississippi Today has complete coverage of the bridge closing. To support this work, make a regular donation to celebrate our Spring Member Drive. This will allow us to continue important work such as this story. Our reporters give a human face to policy’s impact on everyday Mississippians by listening more closely and understanding their communities. To ensure that our work is aligned with the priorities and needs of all Mississippians, we are listening to you. Click the button below to let us know what you think.