Bridges — people on the Gulf Coast aren’t taking them for granted anymore. Hurricane Katrina’s punch knocked out the two major bridges on U.S. 90, the Bay St. Louis Bridge and the Biloxi-Ocean Springs Bridge.
The importance of these bridges quickly became apparent as relief efforts, rebuilding, commerce, development and the fabric of people’s daily lives were and continue to be hampered by the absence of these spans. The replacement of the bridges represents a powerful symbolism of an area and its people coming back.
Speaking of the bridge connecting Biloxi and Ocean Springs, Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway says, “Make no mistake, the opening of the new bridge will be the most significant milestone in our recovery to date. It will have a tremendous impact on activity in East Biloxi in terms of all types of business and in terms of the lives of those who make the daily commute from Ocean Springs to East Biloxi. This 15-minute commute turned into a 45-minute trip and at the same time the price of gasoline has steadily increased.”
From a personal standpoint, Holloway knows about the travel time. “My mother lives in Ocean Springs and I used to visit her two to three times a week,” he says. “I get over there once a week now, and she’s afraid to drive on the interstate so it’s limited her trips this way.”
The Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) moved quickly to rebuild the two bridges. Two lanes of the Bay St. Louis Bridge opened in May to a jubilant community. Two lanes of the Biloxi-Ocean Springs Bridge are scheduled to open November 1, 13 days ahead of the original schedule.
“The Bay Bridge is a stunning symbol of our recovery,” says Tish Williams, executive director of the Hancock County Chamber of Commerce. “It gives us hope and sets the benchmark for rebuilding on the Mississippi Coast.”
Pre-Katrina bridge traffic counts were well more than 20,000 cars daily, creating a vibrant customer market for Hancock County businesses. “When Katrina blew out the bridge, this customer market was lost,” she says. “In May, following the opening of the bridge, businesses here reported that even though traffic counts are not yet at pre-Katrina levels, business activity has increased. As more people complete the rebuilding of their homes and insurance issues are resolved, we will continue to benefit from an increased customer market.”
Joe Henderson, manager of Charlie Henderson Ford, knows first hand how much the opening of the Bay Bridge means. “Our business bottomed out in February of 2007. It was the worst month in the 10 years I’ve been managing this dealership,” he says. “When the bridge opened, it was like someone turned on the faucet again. It opened us up to half our market again.”
The dealership is located on U.S. 90 at the Bay St. Louis-Waveland line. It had 40 employees before Katrina and was down to 26 at one point but is now up to 32.
“The opening of two lanes was a god send; it’s been a very positive thing,” Henderson said. “I’m hoping it will get better again when the other lanes open. That gives us something to look forward to.”
Opening those other two lanes is in the near future, according to David Seyfarth, district area engineer for MDOT.
“We’re on schedule to open them on November 30,” he says. “This bridge is practically a lifeline for Hancock County and especially Bay St. Louis. There’s a completely different environment there since it opened.”
Jane Byrne, an employee of the Hancock County Tourism Bureau, says getting the bridge back has made emotional, financial and physical differences in her life and the lives of many others. She lives in Pass Christian and was making the long daily trek to Bay St. Louis by way of Interstate 10.
“Now when I reach the crest of that bridge over the bay, it has a positive effect as I look over to Bay St. Louis where homes are being repaired and there’s now a graveled road along the beach,” she said. “I see progress.”
Southern District Transportation Commissioner Wayne Brown has a similar feeling when he drives over the new Bay Bridge. “It really strikes me when I get to the top of the bridge and look out over the bay. I don’t see destruction,” he says. “I see the beauty of the area, and I think this view adds to the mystique and scenery of the Coast.”
Brown says he was surprised at how emotional the bridge opening celebration was to area residents. “It was very touching to me,” he says. “People who had lost their homes came out and cooked for MDOT employees. People were emotional and I think the same thing will happen when the Biloxi-Ocean Springs Bridge opens two lanes.”
Mayor Holloway agrees. “I’m certain we’re going to see the same thing over here,” he said. “It’s going to be a great day and one that will signal even greater things as our recovery moves forward.”
That bridge, Brown says, is a sight to see. It’s 10 feet higher than the Bay Bridge, rising 100 feet above sea level and giving 95 feet of clearance to benefit industries upstream in Bayou Bernard.
“The height of the bridge was a tough decision and delayed the project five months,” he says, “but it will help the industries and be a boon to other businesses in Biloxi and Ocean Springs. They will be in a better position to hire people and plan.”
‘Part of the healing process’
Kelly Castleberry, MDOT’s engineer responsible for the Biloxi-Ocean Springs Bridge, observes a lot of excitement about the upcoming opening. “People want to know when they can use it. The opening is on schedule and construction will continue on the other two lanes,” he says. “There’s a lot of anticipation and it’s part of the healing process in getting over August 29, 2005.”
According to Holloway, approximately 35,000 vehicles traveled the bridge on an average day before the storm. Since then, those 35,000 vehicles, plus construction workers and volunteers, have joined the 50,000 a day that had been traveling the I-110 high rise on an average pre-Katrina day.
“You can see the impact every day at morning and afternoon rush hour,” he says. “In fact, I don’t think you can even call it rush hour. The traffic is moving but the I-110 was not designed to carry that volume of traffic on a regular basis.”
He says the cost of not having the bridge is also staggering in financial terms. “For instance, if you operate a business that pays a driver $10 an hour, you’re looking at an extra hour for a round trip, and multiply that times the 35,000 cars that traveled that bridge,” he said. “That’s quite an impact.
“Multiply that times 48.5¢ (the IRS allowable on mileage) and then multiply it by 35,000 vehicles a day, and you’re looking at more than a million-dollar-a-week drag on the economy in fuel alone. And that’s a conservative figure.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at firstname.lastname@example.org.