The number of bridge closures in Mississippi will likely go up when half of the state’s timber bridges are inspected, a top state roads engineer said.
About 600 of the 1,600 bridges currently under examination are receiving their first look under a new set of Federal Highway Administration recommended standards.
“There have been quite a number closed during this cycle, but that was to be expected. We’re looking at 600 or so that have not been looked at in-depth,” said Harry Lee James, the state aid engineer with the Office of State Aid Road Construction. “Anything that potentially causes concern, that may be a public safety issue, we’d rather err on the side of caution than trying to keep it open.”
These 1,600 bridges make up roughly half of the state’s total timber bridges.
Earlier this year, Gov. Phil Bryant ordered bridge closures around the state after the Federal Highway Administration said many timber bridges had not been properly inspected and were no longer safe.
Consultants recommended closing 409 out 1,533 inspected bridges, or just over one quarter. Since April, when the governor declared the state of emergency, the total number of closures peaked at 542; the number now sits at 509.
Washington County has the most bridge closures with 31, although Wilkinson has the most closures per 10,000 residents, with 28.6.
James said that the most recent round of inspections, which started in September, has so far yielded 78 additional closures, but that some of those have already reopened. He said the current inspections will likely continue through March.
James pointed to one bridge that had reopened and closed again, noting that he suspects some vehicles are ignoring the recommended load limits for bridges.
“We still have concerns that when these bridges open back up, that school buses still habitually go across them,” he said. “In many cases, they weigh much more than what the recommended load posting is for the bridge. But there’s only so much we can do. It’s like the speed limit, either you obey it or you don’t.”
Bryant appointed James state aid engineer with State Aid in July, replacing Carey Webb after holding the position for 29 years.
In an August special session, the Legislature passed several bills to provide state and local funding for infrastructure. Lawmakers dedicated $250 million in bond funds to emergency road and bridge repairs. Places in need of bridge repairs have until Dec. 14 to apply for a portion of the funds, which will be prioritized for cases where safety, economic vitality, or mobility are impeded due to bridge deficiencies. The Mississippi Transportation Commission will then decide in January which projects to approve.
Since the closures began, Jones and Bolivar counties have seen the largest decrease in closed bridges, with 16 and 13 respectively. Clarke and Lafayette counties have had the largest increases, with 10 and 9 more closures respectively.
According to the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, 11.8 percent of Mississippi’s bridges are structurally deficient, ranking 12th in the country.