Local officials speak out over bridge closures

Signs mark the site of a closed bridge on Gilreath Road in Clay County.
Staff Writer

A federal bridge inspection program that has been ruffling county officials' feathers across the state is hitting home in Clay County and Board of Supervisors President Shelton Deanes let some inspectors know it.

"I came up on them and let them know what I thought about it. We got into it a little bit. And when I asked them where they were from, they were from Philadelphia, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania," Deanes said of his encounter last week with three engineers inspecting a 300-foot bridge over Cane Creek on the northern part of Starkville-Houston Road off Happy Hollow Road in northwestern Clay County.

The inspectors ultimately closed the bridge because of faltering supports.

It's the third bridge in Deanes' Fourth District to be closed. The first one was June 2015 on Lake Grove Road.

The federal government ultimately ponied up $1.2 million to replace that bridge. That work is being completed now.

The other two have come this month, including a small bridge on Gilreath Road just off Highway 47 and the much larger bridge over Cane Creek.

The bridge on Gilreath Road had worn supports and already was on the county's list to repair next year. Deanes was able to build a detour around it using large drainage culverts. That'll make it easier for the owners of six houses near the bridge to get to Highway 47 for access to West Point without having to take a long way around through Montpelier.

But people living near the other two bridges haven't been so fortunate. And that's what has Deanes and county officials across the state upset.

In fact, Derrick Surrette, the executive director of the Mississippi Association of Supervisors, sent U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran a letter last month asking the influential senator to intervene to stop what he calls a "mandated bureaucracy and excessive spending."

"This federal decree is a perfect example that Washington D.C. is broken and out of touch," Surrette said in his letter on behalf of supervisors across the state.

Deanes understands. His district is the only one where bridges have been closed in the county. Earlier this year, two were closed in Oktibbeha County as part of the Federal Highway Administration edict that requires all 2,300 timber bridges in the state to be reinspected. The feds awarded $31.5 million in contracts to engineering firms, some as far away as New York, to handle the work.

"It's a one-size-fits all approach that's wrong," Deanes said. "These folks are applying the same rules to every bridge, regardless of size, traffic, potential loads, or anything."

The bridge over Cane Creek on Starkville-Houston Road serves one mobile home that is well over a mile away on the Clay-Chickasaw County line. It's closer for that one resident to go to Highway 389 to go to Starkville, Houston or West Point, Deanes says, than to come out to the east across Cane Creek.

He says the bridge's most common use is by mud-riders trying to get to fields or the banks of the creek for fourwheeling fun.

And yet, it'll cost as much as $3 million to replace, Deanes estimates.

"I'm just not sure this is the best use of our dollars, all things considered. And the feds may pay for it but when I talked to the lady at the state Friday, she said this bridge was the 226th on the list of closed bridges in the state. It took more than two years to get money for the last one. I don't know that I'll ever get money for this one.

"They are putting extra costs on our local taxpayers without giving us a say. They are causing a real inconvenience without options. I was pretty mad when I talked to them Friday and I still am," he said of his conversation with the inspectors.

In many cases, counties have lowered the weight limits on the timber bridges to keep them within standards. But that doesn't stop a log truck or heaving farm equipment from crossing them, weakening timbers that in some cases are 40 or more years old. The risk, experts say, is the heavy truck might get across it, but the next car might not. The federal rulemakers decided Mississippi wasn't doing enough fast enough to eliminate those risks.

The locals disagree.

"It's not like we don't pay attention to our bridges. We don't want something bad to happen anymore than anyone else. These are our friends and neighbors and constituents we are watching out for," he continued. It's a reaction engineers are hearing just about everywhere they go.

"You can't really talk to a supervisor in any county where they don't bring it up. It's a real problem for some counties ... the cost, the time, the trouble, just everything. Most feel like they've been doing a good job and that they and their local engineers know what's best," noted Kevin Stafford, the head engineer at the Columbus office of Neal Schaffer Engineering, which works with counties all over the state.

"Local people don't like to have the decisions taken out of their hands," said Bob Calvert of West Point-based CalvertSpradling Engineering, which provides engineering services to Clay, Lowndes and some other counties. "For the feds, cost isn't a consideration, inconvenience isn't a consideration. That's just the way it is."

So far, about 300 bridges have been closed in the state Some counties in the Delta have as many as 20 or 30 that are closed. In some cases, residents have to travel 20 or 30 miles out of their way to get to work, shopping or health care.

And the inspections and closures continue.

Earlier this year, the state Legislature failed to fund the state's bridge replacement program, leaving it with no money.

"It's dead in the water," Calvert said.

The feds only funnel $20 million to $30 million a year through the state Department of Transportation bridge repair by local governments.

Most bridges will cost $300,000 to $400,000 to repair but others will cost more. The counties can't afford it. And at those costs, the state is looking at $120 million in repairs with the numbers climbing.

"At this point, I don't see anything changing," Calvert concluded.