SHELBY – This fall’s harvest will be the first for Jeff Talley since federal bridge inspectors made the county close the Hushpuckena River bridge along the only road in and out of his farm.
The road, located between Shelby and Parchman in the heart of the Delta, is vital for the planting and harvest of the farm’s 1,900 acres of cotton and soybeans.
After the feds ordered the bridge closed in January, Talley and the farm’s workers have just a single way to access the fields: A turnrow owned by another farmer. As long as it’s dry, the turnrow is acceptable. But if it rains, there is no consistent accessibility to the farm.
With the farm being effectively landlocked, Talley and representatives of the company who owns the land approached the Bolivar County board of supervisors on Monday with a unique proposal: “We’ll reimburse the county to repair the bridge.”
“Right now, we’re here just begging for a reprieve. What we need is time,” said Bill Sheppard, an engineer at Civil Link LLC, a Southaven-based engineering firm representing Talley and Hancock Farmland Services. “If it’ll get us three years, it’s worth every penny. It’ll buy us time to make arrangements and get an easement and some signed documents for another route into the farm.”
Farmers across the Delta are among the thousands of Mississippians affected by nearly 500 county bridge closures across the state. Delta counties are particularly disadvantaged after experiencing shrinking tax bases the past few decades and having little spare money to reopen the recently closed bridges.
The crisis exists after years of delayed maintenance at the county level, state 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.
Bryant’s 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.
In the midst of the new crisis, locating the necessary funds for bridge repairs is at the front of local government officials’ minds across the state. As counties approach the new fiscal year, several are pitching local property tax increases or new bond issues to get some of the bridges reopened.
“We’ve got about 10 bridges closed as it is, and there will be more inspections this year, so we expect that number to double,” said Terry Broome, a supervisor in Marion County in south central Mississippi. “We’re talking about a bond issue because we just don’t have the money.”
Mississippi Today reported in May that consultants will inspect another approximately 1,650 timber bridges and that bridge closures statewide could double by 2019.
The scrambling and debate among government officials isn’t limited to just the local level. The bridge crisis has inspired talks of a special legislative session in which lawmakers could flow additional revenue to counties for bridge repairs.
But weeks-long negotiations between legislative leaders about such a proposal have not yet panned out and no special session has been called.
In Bolivar County, where Talley’s farm is located, officials are hoping the Legislature diverts a portion of the state’s internet sales tax collections – recently allowed by a U.S. Supreme Court decision – to counties for infrastructure improvements. The Bolivar County supervisors unanimously voted to sign a resolution to send to the Legislature, asking for the sales tax revenue diversion.
Several county boards of supervisors signed that same resolution this week, which was provided by the Mississippi Association of Supervisors.
“We found what money we could in-house,” said Preston Billings, a Bolivar County supervisor. “We’re still seeking funding. But we couldn’t wait because the situation affected so many people. We found money to get some of the bigger bridges reopened. But unfortunately, there are several bridges that are still closed.”
As for the farm’s offer to reimburse the county for the bridge repair, the Bolivar County board of supervisors said on Monday they would “take it under advisement.”
“They (the board of supervisors) have been more than gracious about it all,” Sheppard said. “We’ll see what they decide.”