A number of interesting alternatives have been suggested by the Governor’s Commission charrette transportation committee regarding rebuilding the infrastructure of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. But with speed being of the essence to replace critical structures like the U.S. 90 bridges, those ideas may have little opportunity to come off the drawing board.
The Governor’s Commission oversaw a series of New Urbanism planning meetings called charrettes earlier this month in Biloxi. One recommendation was to reroute the U.S. 90 bridge between Ocean Springs and Biloxi slightly to the north. That would straighten out a curve, and provide opportunities for a new commercial area dubbed the Ferry District in Ocean Springs. The bridge would come ashore in Biloxi north of Casino Row near Division Street.
Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway said the recommendations were interesting, and that if he had his “druthers,” the bridge would come in near the CSX railroad tracks in Biloxi, and a new U.S. 90 would run parallel to the tracks. But Holloway says that while rebuilding the bridge at the previous footprint could be done by 2007, it would take three or four years to complete environmental permitting requirements and obtain the right-of-way acquisitions that would be needed to move the bridge.
“I would hate for us to be without an east-west bridge between Biloxi and Ocean Springs for three or four years,” Holloway said. “So I think they need to come back with the original plan. I have a little experience at trying to build roads. When it comes to acquisition, it takes a long time and a lot of money. It took us about five years to get all the acquisition done for the widening of Caillavet Road.”
The city was approximately three months shy of completing a four-laning of Caillavet Road, which runs from the U.S. 90 to Back Bay casinos parallel to the elevated Interstate 110. With the damage from the hurricane, completion of that artery is now expected to take six months.
Another issue with the new bridge is whether it should be four or six lanes. The Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) wants it to be six lanes, while the charrette recommendation and some local leaders like Ocean Springs Mayor Connie Moran favor four lanes in order to minimize the disruption to the community entryways.
“MDOT looks at moving traffic,” Holloway said. “That is their main goal. The charrette wanted to promote New Urbanism, which is making communities more walkable. It doesn’t matter to me, four or six lanes. Four lanes have been working for us. That is fine.”
MDOT Southern District Transportation Commission Wayne Brown said he wishes they had the luxury of realigning not only the bridge between Biloxi and Ocean Springs, but also the bridge between Pass Christian and Bay St. Louis.
“To do that, we would have to buy some right of way,” Brown said. “Even though these people have lost their homes and businesses, they have not lost their property rights. Unless you have a fairly willing seller, you are talking about more time, a year to a year-and-a-half or even longer. We would also have to go through the environmental process, and that takes a great deal of time and effort.”
Brown said Florida has seen long delays that mean it is just starting to re-build its Interstate 10 bridges damaged a year ago in Hurricane Ivan. He adds that to get 100% federal highway funding for hurricane damages, work should proceed quickly.
“All we have to do is delay this thing and there might be a tornado or earthquake somewhere, and they will have forgotten about us,” Brown said. “We have this opportunity to get this bridge with 100% federal funding, and we have to take it. We have no choice.”
Each bridge is expected to cost approximately $200 million. The Pass Christian-Bay St. Louis bridge is longer, but will only be four lanes. Brown says the new Ocean Springs-Biloxi bridge needs to be six lanes to meet future traffic needs.
“Today, a six-lane bridge isn’t needed from Ocean Springs to Biloxi, but we have to build for 25 years out,” he said. “That is a federal requirement. I don’t want a bridge that meets today’s capacity, but is congested in one year or five years. That bridge will be there 50 years or 100 years.”
Brown said the Pascagoula drawbridge lasted 50 years before being replaced recently with a new high-rise bridge. The Ocean Springs-Biloxi bridge was built in the 1960s, and lasted until Katrina. Some bridges on U.S. 49 to Hattiesburg were built in the 30s.
“We design for 25 years, but expect them to last 50 to 100 years,” he said.
Brown said New Urbanism has some real merit. Instead of just building wider and wider roads, narrower roads encourage people to carpool and take mass transit.
“They want four lanes so it will force people to get on mass transit, carpools and be more efficient,” Brown said. “We are not in the business to moderate human behavior on the highways here, but we need to start thinking that way. At some point we have to stop building wider. I hear what they are saying. It is just unfortunate that we aren’t going to be able to do it here.”
Effort have been discussed to make the bridges more attractive with more trees and shrubbery in the right of way at the bridge approaches, and decorations on the bridges such as stamped concrete or brick and stone decorative elements.
MDOT has put out proposals for design/build teams for the bridge replacement projects. Proposals are expected in early December. Limited traffic is expected to be allowed in a year, with the bridges being completed in 18 months.
The bridges are expected to be twin spans with no drawbridge as with the old bridges. Plans call for the high rise bridges to have 85-foot vertical clearance, and 250 horizontal clearance. Brown said the commission will not decide the winning bidder, but will approve the recommendations of the MDOT engineering staff about the best bid.
Another major highway issue on the Coast is the reconstruction of the hurricane battered U.S. 90 parallel to the Coast. Brown said the south two lanes of 90 are open while work proceeds on opening the north two lanes.
One impediment to the project has been the storm drains under the highways filled up with sand, debris such as microwaves and even alligators.
“We have pulled 11 alligators out of the stormwater drains under the highway,” Brown said.
A contract has been let with Mallette Brothers to rebuild the north two lanes of U.S. 90 from U.S. 49 in Gulfport to I-110 in Biloxi. A contract was also in the process of being let to repair U.S. 90 from U.S. 49 west to Menge Avenue in Pass Christian. Brown said they hope to have U.S. 90 completed by December, but it might be January or February.
At present much of the traffic on U.S. 90 is being limited to local residents and relief workers. Some portions of the highway are being opened during rush hour traffic to ease congestion.
A lot of the traffic congestion in Biloxi has been caused by damage to Popps Ferry Road. Mayor Holloway said a contract was recently let for $7.6 million to repair the bridge in 100 days — with financial incentives for early completion. The loss of this corridor has caused major traffic headaches in Biloxi.
“It’s a real problem right now,” Holloway said. “Traffic is backing up on Pass Road and Irish Hill Drive. It is really a squeeze on our traffic transportation system. Hopefully we will get this thing done in 80 or 90 days, and get it open. It is rough on the schools.”
Talks are also continuing about either a passenger and/or passenger/car ferry running between Ocean Springs and Biloxi to help with transportation needs to rebuild Biloxi until the new bridge is completed.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at email@example.com.