Coast bridges don't make the grade

Coast bridges don't make the grade

BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - Serious, poor and critical condition aren't always medical terms. The words also describe bridges that some residents use everyday when they get behind the wheel.

Some are may even be shocked at not only how many bad bridges exist South Mississippi, but also at what's not being done to fix them.

At first glance, many of the bridges appear normal. But a closer look underneath shows a much different picture: concrete cracking and wooden pilings rotting.

In Stone, Harrison, Jackson and Hancock counties there are 49 bridges the federal government says are unsafe. Many of the bridges are in rural areas such as southern Stone County, or northern Harrison County.

However, some of the bridges are in the center of cities. The condition of a bridge in Pascagoula listed as poor stunned a driver who passes over it every day.

"That surprised me, and it makes me very worried. I didn't know that," said Grace Lopez. "I'm very concerned, and I don't think I want to use this side of the street again."

Southern District Highway Commissioner Tom King says the bridges are a tragedy waiting to happen.

"Frankly, I'm very concerned. One death is not worth the cost of repairing our bridges or replacing our bridges," King said.

So why isn't that happening?   In a word, money; or the lack of it. The state's gasoline tax of 18.4 cents a gallon pays for road and bridge maintenance and has been the same amount for decades.

"It's past time for an increase, 30 years is a very long time," added King. "Not many businesses, especially private businesses, work on same budget they had 30 years ago, trust me."

David Boan thinks he takes better care of his car than the state does in taking care of its bridges. He wouldn't mind paying more tax at the pump, with one condition.

"Most definitely if it's earmarked for roads and bridges, yes. And not go into the general fund, it should be earmarked just strictly for roads and bridges," Boan explained.

Scot Jones drives large trucks for a living. The bridge conditions don't sit well with his lunch.

"We haul 20,000 pounds of equipment over these bridges each and every day from Biloxi to Diamondhead. Having that equipment fall off into the drink would be disastrous for our company," Jones said.

Rolling over the bridges is also unsettling for hair stylist Jessica Hoda in Diamondhead.

"It holds water a lot. When the rain gets really bad, and you're going through in a small car, it's hard," said Hoda. "It's a little rickety for what it's used for everyday."

There are many who say the most precious cargo carried over the bridges are not the products bought in stores, not the gasoline we put in tanks, and not the food delivered to restaurants. It's children.

Harrison County School District Director of Transportation Larry Benefield keeps a wary eye on bridge conditions every day.

"Any time a bridge is posted in Harrison County, it's a concern to us," Benefield said.  "We're moving 8,500 students a day so we have to stay in communications with the county bridge department and the state to make sure we're staying within the limits. But, it is a great concern. You know a bridge can break and have a piling bust at any time."

A bridge on busy Hwy. 49 is traversed by more than 17,000 vehicles a day, including dozens of school buses. It's substructure is rated poor, and isn't good news for school bus drivers like Bruce Simmons.

"I really didn't know the bridge was in that bad a shape. I mean, I know they fixed this bridge but to come to find out that we run across this bridge every single day, that worries me. It worries me a lot," Simmons lamented.

Some bridges, like one in northeast Jackson County, are being replaced. However, it's a rarity. Fixing or replacing bridges is not just a matter of safety, It's also a matter of economic development.

"It is the number two rated issue next to the workforce. Transportation and transportation connectivity is the number two rated according to Site Selection magazine, as the reason a site selector chooses a state, workforce being number one," Blake Wilson, president of the Mississippi Economic Council. "So this is critical that we attack this issue head on."

Motions to raise the state's gas tax were heard once again during the current legislative session, but just like in years past, there was not enough support for any tax increase, and the motions died.

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