More Mississippi bridges added to list; counties get 24 hours to begin closures

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Zachary Oren Smith, Mississippi Today

This 2016 photo shows a bridge over the Coldwater River in Tate County that was closed by MDOT due to its high degree of decay.

The number of city and county bridges the Mississippi Department of Transportation are ordered to close increased from 83 to 102 as of Wednesday, according to the Mississippi Department of Transportation and Mississippi Office of State Aid Road Construction documents.

The Mississippi Office of State Aid Road Construction updated its list of bridges the day after Gov. Phil Bryant declared a state of emergency. The proclamation initially ordered the state Department of Transportation to close 83 local and county bridges that have been judged deficient by federal National Bridge Inspection Standards and the Mississippi Office of State Aid Road Construction.

The Mississippi Department of Transportation on Wednesday announced its bridge closure procedure, saying counties will have the opportunity to close bridges within 24 hours of notification.

MDOT would then visit each bridge site the counties did not close and determine what is needed for closure. The department then will secure barricades and the closure materials and have police present at the closure of these bridges.

The department will “start moving toward closing bridges” on Thursday using a list provided by the Mississippi Office of State Aid Road Construction showing bridges counties have neglected to close. MDOT will work through the list until all are closed, department officials said Wednesday.

The Federal Highway Administration notified the governor last month that many of the most dangerous bridges had not been closed. The highway administration warned that if the dangerous bridges were not closed immediately, Mississippi would be in danger of losing access to federal funds, according to MDOT Executive Director Melinda McGrath.

“MDOT is thankful for the governor’s strong support of public safety while protecting federal transportation funds that come into the state,” McGrath said in a statement. “The state and MDOT cannot afford to lose any money for roads and bridges.”

Clay Chandler, director of communications for Gov. Phil Bryant’s office, said the governor’s state of emergency proclamation from Tuesday was worded in a way that allows any bridges found to be deficient after it was issued to be included.

“The bridges will continue to add and fall off once they’re inspected/closed/repaired,” Chandler said in an email on Wednesday. “The bridges were found to be deficient some time ago. Local governments – these were all locally owned bridges – were supposed to close them once that judgment was made. Some did and some did not. Because so many did not, the SoE (state of emergency) became necessary.”

MDOT officials said counties are sending in updated information to the office of state aid daily. The Mississippi Office of State Aid Road Construction, which provides funding and enforces federal guidelines for county and city-owned roads and bridges, has not immediately responded to requests for comment.

The Tuesday announcement came almost a week after the U.S. Department of Transportation notified the state that the Federal Highway Administration is concerned that the bridges remaining open constitutes an unacceptable safety risk requiring immediate federal, state and local action, the statement said.

The bridges expected to close are in Amite, Carroll, Clarke, Greene, Hinds, Humphreys, Itawamba, Jasper, Jones, Lauderdale, Leake, Lincoln, Newton, Pike, Smith and Wayne counties. According to Mississippi Office of State Aid Road Construction documents, there were 542 closed county and local bridges in the state as of Tuesday morning.

In a letter to Bryant dated April 5, the Federal Highway Administration recommended 378 bridges for immediate closure. Those bridges derived from a March 2017 action plan formed by administration, MDOT and the Office of State Aid Road Construction to address National Bridge Inspection Standards compliance issues concerning the proper inspection and closure of unsafe bridges.

These bridges Bryant ordered closed will remain so until they are in compliance with federal and state laws, regulations and standards, the statement said.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the Federal Highway Administration’s Mississippi Division allowed many of the bridges deemed “deficient” to remain open to the public as late as last month. The Federal Highway Administration does not have legal authority to close city and county bridges, an administration spokesman said.

Read the latest on bridge closures in Mississippi.