Judge: County bridges must remain closed after federal inspections

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A Hinds County judge dismissed a motion filed by Smith and Jasper counties seeking to immediately reopen bridges that inspectors deemed unsafe and recommended closed.

The two counties sued Gov. Phil Bryant and several agencies in April over Bryant’s recent emergency declaration that led to more than 100 bridges being closed around the state.

Mississippi Department of Transportation crew members close a bridge in May on Springridge Road in Raymond.

The counties claimed the governor’s proclamation to close several bridges in those counties and in others exceeds the powers he is granted under the emergency management law.

In the same filing, the two counties asked for a temporary restraining order to reopen the bridges while the case is considered.

Hinds County Chancery Judge William Singletary dismissed the motion to reopen the bridges, and also hinted that the case may not have standing moving forward.

“This court cannot determine that there exists a substantial likelihood that the petitioners will prevail on the merits in this matter,” Singletary wrote.

In 2016, the Federal Highway Administration forced an extensive round of bridge inspections in Mississippi after concluding the state’s timber bridges had not been properly inspected by county officials. The federal agency then ordered the re-inspection of the bridges over the course of 2018 and 2019.

That federally mandated re-inspection has led to the majority of the closures over the past year. The most recent data from the Office of State Aid Road Construction shows that 526 locally owned bridges are closed around the state, and a vast majority of those are timber bridges that have been closed over the past year.

Several county officials, including in Smith and Jasper counties, say the closures have disrupted industry.

The complaints in the counties’ suit mirror those of local residents and county officials who recently spoke with Mississippi Today. In addition to the extra time it takes to go around detours, they expressed concerns about emergency-services personnel.

“The closing of these bridges has caused significant and widespread hardship to the citizens of these counties. These hardships include: the re-routing of school buses which has caused inconveniences to parents and their children; the increased risk to the citizens in the event of emergency medical needs and the ability of emergency personnel to respond to those needs; law enforcement being able to respond to emergency situations; and fire and rescue personnel being delayed in the event of a catastrophic fire,” said J.D. Sanford, an attorney with Marc E. Brand & Associates, the firm representing the counties.

In response to the lawsuit being filed, Gov. Bryant cast blame on the county supervisors for not properly maintaining the bridges in the first place, and said he is just following the recommendations of the independent inspection consultants who are helping the state comply with the federal mandate.

“I refuse to sit idly by and risk loss of life,” Bryant said at the time in a statement. “Had counties done their job, I would not have had to exercise my authority, which will protect the very people who elected these supervisors.”