JACKSON, Miss. — Few people know Jones County better than Mitch Stennett, a long-time resident and head of the Economic Development Authority of Jones County.
Yet, even he was surprised by the number of suspect bridges in his county and where they are located per the National Bridge Inventory.
"Two bridges on the Ellisville-Tuckers Crossing Road are on the list? Really?" Stennett asked. "That is a heavily traveled road." When he learned that the NBI has red-flagged 46 bridges in Jones County and thousands across the state, he added, "I am surprised by that. I had no idea it was that many. I guess it is out of sight, out of mind."
Unsafe bridges are prevalent across the Magnolia State.
Patrice O'Brien lives in Rankin County, but she owns timberland in Yalobusha County and has witnessed firsthand the challenges bad bridges create. A creek running along her Yalobusha land was dredged in a flood control project. The dredging caused enormous erosion issues, and eventually damaged a neighboring farmer's bridge.
"He came to me asking permission to use the bridge on my property because he could no longer get to market," O'Brien said. "For those of us in the agriculture industry, safe, dependable roads and bridges are absolutely essential."
Their reaction to the list of 2,000 aging bridges in Mississippi that get a low grade in the NBI is typical.
"This is what we're trying to do get the word out that we have a growing problem in Mississippi, and that we need to address it now," said Mike Pepper, executive director of the Mississippi Road Builders Association.
"Sometimes the numbers thousands of bridges and billions of dollars needed to fix them are just too big to get your mind around."
The bridges in the NBI, which are available on the Office of State Aid Road Construction's website (http://www.msstateaidroads.us ) are ranked on a sufficiency rating scale of 0-100.
Information on individual bridges includes the roadway, feature intersected, year built, bridge type, year rehabilitated or repaired, the entity that owns the bridge, average daily traffic, etc. It also provides a rating on each bridge's deck, superstructure, substructure, culvert and channel.
The NBI list does not include the 1,054 suspect state bridges structures either closed or posted that are maintained by the Mississippi Department of Transportation.
County supervisors are responsible for the upkeep of the vast majority of the bridges in the NBI, and they face a growing problem daily. More people seeking country living and new business and industry is putting more and more traffic on roads that only a few years ago were relatively little-used rural lanes. Counties really felt the crunch two years ago when the Legislature did not pass a bond bill.
Melinda McGrath, executive director of MDOT, has personally seen and heard supervisors' problems. A rural Hinds County road she lives on has become a shortcut to the industrial park in Clinton. She also was on the Coast recently where the supervisors met to discuss major issues, transportation infrastructure being a key talking point.
"They need more funding everybody is looking for money," McGrath said when asked what she heard from supervisors.
McGrath said MDOT-managed bridges are part of the grid and are better maintained than the county and municipal bridges. She said non-MDOT bridges, while on average shorter, are also generally older.
"These are largely old, wooden structures," McGrath said. "I would guess that the majority of the bridges (that are red-flagged in the NBI) are beyond rehabilitation they need to be replaced."
MDOT, the transportation commissioners, road builders, foresters and more have been trying to call attention to the growing bad bridge issue, and gain some political traction. At the heart of the effort is to replace the current funding mechanism set in 1987 at $18 cents per gallon of fuel.
Last year, legislation in the Mississippi House that would have raised the tax failed to get out of committee. The Senate briefly explored a plan that would have used a portion of casino winnings for bridge and road costs, which was never formally debated, before passing a resolution to form a study group to explore the issues. The group met for the first time June 12.
In the meantime, concerns continue to rise that the states deteriorating bridges are going to stymie economic development and offer a real threat to public safety.
Robby Toombs of Resource Management Service LLC in Flowood has been active on the road and bridges front in Mississippi for years. Recently, he worked as part of a team developing the Mississippi Forestry Association's position statement on the issue.
"In my opinion, Mississippi's two greatest assets are its people and land," Toombs said.
He said bad bridges are a threat to both.
Red-flagged bridges, http://bit.ly/183mo1r
Mississippi's posted bridges, http://bit.ly/11FknEA
Information from: Mississippi Business Journal, http://www.msbusiness.com