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Senate transportation chair seeks emergency money for roads, bridges

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Sen. Willie Simmons

In a move he acknowledges is a long-shot, the chairman of the Senate Highways and Transportation Committee is asking legislators to approve $300 million for timely repairs on state highways and bridges and an additional $100 million for locally maintained roads and bridges.

Sen. Willie Simmons, a Cleveland Democrat, wants the money to be part of the state’s general obligation bonding.

His legislation, Senate Bill 2028, is in the Senate Finance Committee.

If allocated, around $40 million of the $300 million would go for replacing posted bridges on the Delta’s Highway 6 between Batesville and Clarksdale.

His bill limits draws on the $300 million for state roads and bridges to $150 million a year and to $50 million a year on the $100 million State Aid portion.

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Simmons said in November legislators are unlikely to support allocating money for permanent repairs, preferring instead to wait for completion of a comprehensive study and proposals from a transportation task force created by the Mississippi Economic council, the state’s Chamber of Commerce.

In an interview last week, Simmons said legislative leaders still seem unsure what direction to take. “Leadership is saying they want to do something. But they haven’t agreed to what we can do,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Mississippi Department of Transportation has done emergency repairs on a half dozen of the posted bridges along an approximate 40-mile stretch of Highway 6.

MDOT raised posted weight limits on the six bridges after replacing and constructing additional shoring of numerous timber pilings which support the bridge, the Associated Press reported in early November.

“While this repair increases postings to at least 11 tons, it is a short-term fix allowing more agriculture and school traffic to move along Highway 6,” said Transportation Commissioner Mike Tagert in the AP report.

“MDOT is working with the Mississippi Legislature to identify new funding possibilities to replace critical needs bridges along Highways 6, 18, 32 and 309, but the price tag for completion is approximately $110 million.”

Simmons said SB 2028 would provide money to tackle some of the more serious problems among the hundreds of deficient bridges across Mississippi. Many of the bridges in the worst shape are in the Delta, and 80 percent of the total are north of Interstate 20, Simmons said.

Meanwhile, the Delta Council, a longstanding organization of the region’s business and agricultural leaders, wants lawmakers to allocate about $50 million for emergency repairs on the bridges between Batesville and Clarksdale.

Simmons in 2013 led a transportation task force of legislators and representatives of transportation-reliant business sectors. They found an urgent need for the state to begin whittling a road and bridge maintenance backlog of more than $1 billion.

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