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Analysis: Angry officials squabble over troubled bridges

JEFF AMY

Mississippi has a problem: deteriorating local bridges.

People could work together to seek a solution. All too often, though, it seems they’d rather fight.

The anger boiling among some county supervisors has now produced a lawsuit by Smith and Jasper counties against Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, claiming he overstepped his legal power when he declared a state of emergency and ordered counties to close bridges that federally backed inspectors judged unsafe.

Bryant’s action in April followed a year and a half of escalating pressure from federal officials and mounting resentment from county supervisors and engineers.

This whole drama started back in late 2016, when the Federal Highway Administration decided it wanted to take a closer look at low-rated bridges in Mississippi.

The agency’s assistant division administrator, Don Davis, told county supervisors at a meeting in January that a federal review found Mississippi had more low-rated bridges still open and carrying traffic than any other state. Federal officials ordered inspections of the 120 lowest-rated bridges. Of the first six they looked at, federal officials concluded four were unsafe and needed to be closed. Local governments were leaving 114 of the 120 bridges open, but federal officials concluded 65 of those bridges needed to be closed.

This is where everything went bad.

The feds concluded that counties and cities were leaving unsafe bridges open, and that the Office of State Aid Road Construction wasn’t effectively policing those local decisions. The feds ordered lots more inspections, first finding 89 of another 139 low-rated bridges unsafe, and then ordering the state to inspect all 2,200 bridges that have timber pilings underneath.

“We had no choice but to conclude that unsafe bridges are not being closed,” Davis said.

Since it doesn’t have much influence over State Aid, the Federal Highway Administration issued an ultimatum to the Mississippi Department of Transportation, threatening its federal funding if the department didn’t make its separately controlled little brother comply.

The department did so, creating an inspection program costing tens of millions. That hacked off supervisors, especially because it came from transportation money they said could have been used to repair bridges.

“Why did y’all let a $32 million contract when you could have given that $32 million to the counties?” Smith County Supervisor Dwight Norris asked in the January meeting. “A lot of these bridges can be repaired for less than $14,000.”

Counties might fix all the bridges if they had plenty of money, but supervisors are trying to avoid hiking property taxes on local voters. Lawmakers agreed to borrow $50 million this year to help, but after skipping the regular $20 million payment during the 2017 budget, that’s only $10 million more than normal.

The closures are certainly hardships. The state bridge database shows one bridgeclosed in Jasper County created a 13-mile detour. Another bridge closed there carried 1,400 vehicles per day.

Not all bridges are staying closed. Cities and counties are repairing and reopening some, although they may still be posted to prohibit heavy vehicles.

But a number of counties never accepted the inspection results. They refused to close bridges, forcing Bryant and state transportation officials to do it for them.

“The county bridges are routinely inspected by public and private engineers for these counties who have not deemed these bridges to be a hazard to the motoring public within these counties,” lawyers for Smith and Jasper counties said when they filed the lawsuit.

In effect, they’re saying leave the counties alone and let them go back to how they’ve been doing things. Meanwhile, as counties fight with state and federal officials, drivers might want to beware.

» JEFF AMY has covered politics and government for The Associated Press in Mississippi since 2011. Follow him at http://twitter.com/jeffamy . Read his work at https://www.apnews.com/search/Jeff_Amy .

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