Bridge Battle Pits MDOT Versus Shipbuilders

WLOX News talked with Transportation Commissioner Wayne Brown. He said the Coast Guard should settle the bridge's height issue in the next 30 days. Brown remains hopeful that a bridge without a draw can be built right after that.

And that's the problem. Shipbuilders say the replacement bridge must have a draw. Otherwise, jobs, taxes and productivity could be jeopardized.

Just ask Billy Smith.

"We actually have six yachts under construction in this one bay," the Trinity Yachts executive said outside his new Gulfport shipyard.

Those yachts all got moved from New Orleans to Gulfport when Trinity had to relocate. That was in September, right after Hurricane Katrina knocked down the Biloxi-Ocean Springs Bridge. Smith wants that bridge rebuilt with a drawbridge attached to it.

"All we're asking for is keep the access to the ocean that we had prior to Katrina," he said.

Prior to the storm, a drawbridge gave Harrison County's shipbuilding companies unlimited access to the open water. After the hurricane, MDOT decided to raise the height of a replacement bridge so a draw would be unnecessary. Trinity Yachts, Northrop Grumman, and the Harrison County Development Commission all protested that decision.

"I don't see any other industry being penalized with what they're going to repair back to is going to be less than what they had prior to Katrina," Smith said. "Yet that's what they're asking us to do."

On Tuesday, the drawbridge controversy forced MDOT to postpone back bay bridge construction indefinitely.

"How big a blow was it?" asked Hancock Bank President George Schloegel. "Well, let's squeeze the lemon and turn it into lemonade."

In other words, find a compromise. And that's something Schloegel has done a lot since the hurricane. The bank president has been in several post Katrina closed door meetings about the bridge. He helped negotiate its width. Now, he's in talks about its height.

Schloegel knows there's a way to get the bridge rebuilt that makes everybody happy. His solution -- drop the bridge's height, lower its cost, and then add a drawbridge.

"If we can find a way for 99 percent of the vessels to come through without opening it, and only one percent that we could schedule by appointment to open it, we will hit a home run," he said.

"Will that mean perhaps a little lower bridge? Maybe. And maybe that's a solution to being outside the money. Maybe even drop it back to 65 feet, which would accommodate 99 percent of the boats and get it back into budget. And I hope we'll address that real quickly."

Commissioner Brown isn't sold on the notion that lowering the height of the bridge and adding a draw makes the project more cost effective. He worries that new environmental studies, and additional engineering work could be cost prohibitive. And he estimated they could add another two years to the Biloxi-Ocean Springs Bridge project.