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LELAND – Mack Gower stood at his front door and pointed toward his wife’s office building, which is approximately two miles across some soybean and cotton fields. Her daily commute used to take no more than five minutes.
But now that three county-owned bridges are closed near their home, she must drive through the fields along the dirt turnrows – risking expensive car damage and ruining the farmer’s crop – or take the only paved county road with an open bridge, a route that is approximately 25 miles, or 40 minutes, one way.
When it rains, the muddy turnrows aren’t an option for the 45 residents in the vicinity.
“Everybody’s got flat tires and busted motors from driving the fields. I’ve had to replace all four tires,” said Cathy Zeigler, who lives two houses down from Gower. “If you don’t have a truck, you’re getting stuck. The only other option is to drive 40 minutes around creation just to get to town.”
Thousands of Mississippians are affected by the closure of 500 locally owned and maintained bridges. Some, like Gower and his neighbors, have begrudgingly minimized the inconveniences, but for everyone the frustration and anxiety are mounting.
That frustration stems from years of delaying maintenance, lawmakers’ inability to pass a comprehensive infrastructure funding package and unresolved political turf wars. All of this came to a head on April 10 when Gov. Phil Bryant ordered the state transportation department to close nearly 100 bridges around the state.
The declaration was made in the wake of federal government inspection mandates that were developed in 2017 after the Federal Highway Administration determined that hundreds of the state’s timber-pile bridges were unsafe for travel and had been improperly inspected for years.
Residents have little faith in state leaders to remedy the problem, as shown in a recent poll by NBC News and Survey Monkey in collaboration with Mississippi Today which found just 36 percent of those responding believe the state is doing a good job maintaining roads and bridges.
For the second straight legislative session, Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves failed to agree on a long-term infrastructure funding plan. Negotiations between the two Republican leaders broke down earlier this year over Reeves’ insistence that cities and counties match state dollars that would help them repair their locally owned roads and bridges.
Gunn, a Republican from Clinton, has brought forward a plan that would raise the state’s 18.4 cent fuel tax, but eliminate the 4 percent individual income tax bracket. Democrats argued that plan would simply redistribute current revenues the state is already spending and wouldn’t solve any long-term infrastructure problems.
Bryant has said he would consider a special legislative session to address the crisis, but not until Gunn and his Senate counterpart, Reeves, strike an agreement.
Local drivers who depend on the bridges fear the repercussions are more dire than regularly reaching for the pocketbook to pay for extra gas and pricey car repairs, Gower said.
“One person out here is 88. Two others are in their 80s. Another’s 79. If an ambulance needed to get out here, all we could do is watch them die,” Gower said. “The ambulance would come how the GPS told them, and they’d have to turn around at the closed bridge and go all the way around.”
Gower continued: “Just the other day, I went to the fire department and drew them a map and told them how to get out here in case there’s a fire.”
Safety, funding concerns mount
In every corner of the state, the transportation department’s emergency closures have incensed county officials who say the state failed to reach out to local governments before ordering the bridges closed, prompting a chorus of concern about public safety.
“When you’ve got this many bridges closed it is an emergency. You don’t have to worry about the convenience factor, you have to worry about EMTs and fire (trucks),” said Mike Morgan, president of the Hinds County Board Supervisors. “Some people are almost completely landlocked and you think about an ambulance or fire truck, that’s very concerning.”
Local officials say they know little about what prompted closures, and the peculiar arrangement of the Mississippi Department of Transportation and the Office of State Aid Road Construction — separate agencies that each play a part of infrastructure upkeep — makes it difficult to follow state and federal transportation funds as they flow to these agencies and ultimately trickle down to local governments.
The current crisis exposes the fact that the problem is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon without a big cash injection. Although the Legislature provides counties with $51 million per year for the repair and maintenance of some rural bridges, the funds are inadequate to address the problem, several county officials told Mississippi Today.
“That $50 million is going to help, but it won’t touch the amount of money that’s needed,” said Derrick Surrette, executive director of the Mississippi Association of Supervisors.
“County budgets are set and there’s only so much money available for roads and bridges. They may be able to shuffle some money around or have enough in their road fund to do those repairs for the $15,000 or $25,000 repair projects. But many of these are your $250,000 or $500,000 projects. Even if you have five or 20 bridges closed and they average $50,000 or more, then that also becomes unmanageable,” said Surrette.
“We’ve got a big problem at the county level, and at the state level, we’re no closer to a solution,” Surrette said. “It’s not good.”
A failure to communicate
During a recent visit to his office in Magnolia, Mike Duncan, the road supervisor in Pike County, passed a Enterprise-Journal newspaper article headlined “Supervisors livid over bridge closures” across the table.
“That’s how we feel,” said Duncan, who has held the job for the past 10 years. “It’s a frustrating situation. I mean counties — I’ve talked to several of them — and they’re just frustrated with these folks coming. Close, close, close, close, close, that’s all they know.”
A bridge on Fernwood Road in Pike County which was ordered closed because one of the wooden pilings required additional support has already been repaired by wrapping the pilings with an apparatus that resembles a stack of aluminum pancakes. Even so, Pike County crews closed the bridge by piling red clay at opposite ends of the bridge awaiting a re-inspection, but Duncan doesn’t know when that will happen.
The county, he said, is always working on its 153 bridges — 40 have been repaired or replaced since 2010 — so he doesn’t understand why state officials have all of a sudden declared an emergency.
“Obviously we’ve got deficient bridges, we know that. We’re addressing that. We’re working on them all the time,” Duncan said.
Last week, Washington County workers were out trying to repair one of the three bridges that affect Mack Gower and his neighbors. If that one is repaired, Gower said, the 40-minute drive to town, which is just two miles away, would be cut to 15 minutes.
Washington County Supervisor Jesse Amos, who also owns a trucking company, said county officials don’t know how they’ll find money to repair all the closed bridges and continue maintaining the aging ones.
“Right now, we’re talking about what we can do – selling some bonds or raising taxes or whatever,” said Amos. “To be honest with you, we’re going to have to wait and hope the Legislature or the feds can come up with some money. Otherwise, we can’t keep up.”
Washington County Road Manager Arthur Perry, who was in Leland last week talking to Gower and other residents affected by bridge closures, echoed the concerns expressed by Duncan.
“The feds don’t care nothing about the livelihood of the people,” Perry said. “These bridges are strong. We know what the water does when it rains a lot. Nobody knows better than these 45 residents out here who are affected by it all. It’s real frustrating.”
Mike Morgan, the Hinds County supervisor, agreed. Recently, the Hinds Board of Supervisors voted to borrow $40 million for roads projects, including bridge repairs.
“We’re not waiting around from money to fall from the sky,” he said.
School buses go ’round and ’round
In some counties, school districts are struggling to reroute buses to avoid closed bridges and to pay the costs that come with driving the new routes.
In Ellisville, Jones County School District Transportation Manager Terry Graham said after Bryant’s declaration the district scrambled to redraw school bus routes to deal with the county’s 29 bridges that are closed.
“We run more road miles than anyone else in the state,” Graham said of the more than 8,600-student school district. “We weren’t expecting that volume (of closed bridges).”
In all, 41 bus routes were affected by the closures in Jones County, Graham said, and those 41 bus drivers are now driving an additional 135 miles a day.
“Our school buses average seven miles per gallon of diesel — that’s a substantial amount of money,” he said. “It was just a scramble to get our drivers acclimated to what we wanted them to do, where to turn around,” he said. “Some students we just couldn’t service anymore.”
Graham said he tried to get the revised routes as close to the bridges as possible so that students could walk out or get dropped at the new stops by their parents, but in many cases students have to find other transportation to school.
Graham estimates no bus route has to add on more than 20 minutes per ride, but when one factors in the afternoon ride home that amounts to an extra 40 minutes per day on the school bus. The district tries not to pick up students before 6 a.m., but with one route, students now need to be met at 5:50 a.m. so they can get to school in time for breakfast, he said.
Being on time is particularly important now while students are participating in state testing.
“I would be lying if I said I’ve been successful completely — last week was tough, it really was,” Graham said. “But we’ve had a better couple of days this week and I hope we can continue to do so.”
In Amite County in the Southwest corner of the state, 27 bridges are currently listed as closed. Of the county school district’s 18 bus routes, three have new detours in the wake of the bridge closures.
“It does affect us,” said Amite County School District Transportation Director Billy Honea. “It’s extra time on the roads, therefore extra time on the bus and extra expenses.”
Like in Jones County, Honea said, his district tries not to pick up students before 6 a.m. and get them to school before 7:20 a.m. For the detoured routes, the extra time on the roads adds about 15 minutes, he said.
In Hinds County, three of the 28 closed bridges have affected routes in the Jackson Public School District. Spokesman Sherwin Johnson said, “Our bus drivers have developed and taken different routes as a result of the bridge closures to ensure the safety of students.”
In Corinth, Alcorn County Sheriff Ben Caldwell remains constantly in contact with the county supervisors, who communicate which bridges are closed. Currently, at least eight bridges are closed in the county in extreme northeast Mississippi.
In April, the sheriff’s department received a call about a car accident off County Road 604, just west of Corinth. Caldwell said a deputy was less than a mile from the accident when the call came in, but because a bridge was closed, he had to drive “four or five miles around” to get there.
“Thankfully, that was just a minor accident and no one was seriously hurt, but that was an eye-opener,” Caldwell said. “All of the bridges that are closed have an impact. They could affect our ability to get to people in an emergency.
“Fortunately we haven’t had any major instances, but we know it’s a possibility,” Caldwell said. “It’s not a good situation.”
Elizabeth Harris, who lives outside Laurel in Jones County, summed up the feelings of many locals around the state, telling Mississippi Today: “It’s not the most inconvenient thing that’s ever happened to me, but having to drive an extra 15 or so miles a day to get to town isn’t great. We don’t know if things will get better. The uncertainty about the when is the most frustrating thing.”