County engineer Ronnie Clark talks to the board about the bridge-inspection problem.

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Feds threaten to cut off MDOT funding if counties don’t follow closure orders

It will take a court order for Jones County to close bridges that were recommended for closure by “sub-consultants” who were hired by the federal government to conduct the inspections.

That’s what county engineer Ronnie Clark and Supervisor Barry Saul and other supervisors said after a special meeting with Mississippi Department of Transportation district engineer Kelly Castleberry last week. And they may just get that, now that the state is ramping up efforts to get counties to comply after being threatened with having federal funds taken away.

A total of 27 county bridges have been recommended for “immediate closure” by Garver Engineering in Little Rock, Ark., and, to date, only three have been closed. All of the bridges are supported by timber pilings. 

“Imminent failure will occur at some point,” Castleberry said during a slide presentation and question-and-answer session with supervisors. “It may be today, it may be tomorrow, next week or six months from now. If the right truck goes across, it will fail.”

Supervisors have ignored the order, waiting for an explanation from the engineer who conducted the inspections. But now the Federal Highway Administration has threatened to cut off funding to MDOT unless counties comply with the order, so MDOT officials’ “hair is on fire,” Clark said. 

Clark has been critical of the FHA for taking inspections out of the hands of county engineers and hiring consultants to do the job.

“The federal government feels like it knows better than local people,” he said.

Castleberry said that the consultants conduct a “very, very in-depth inspection,” and the determination is “not any judgment, it’s a hard number.”

He explained the process of inspectors, using a specialized drill with a small bit to drill into each piling to measure resistance and how solid the wood is. Then a “resistance graph” is printed to rate its stability. Inspectors also use a pick to chop away at the rotting pilings until they get to “good wood.”

But Saul challenged the findings, holding up photos he took of rotten wood under bridges on state highways and maintained by MDOT that passed inspections.

“You have bridges in the same shape as ours,” Saul said, holding up a photo of the underside of a bridge on a highway in Clarke County. “The only difference is, ours has a closed sign and theirs has a 72,000-pound limit sign. I don’t believe the playing field is even. We aren’t being treated fairly.”

Castleberry said that five state bridges were being replaced on Highway 49, south of Hattiesburg, because of bad inspections.

“We could probably do that, too, if MDOT would quit cutting State Aid money,” Supervisor Johnny Burnett said.

Supervisors were also critical of the amount of money that was spent on consultants, whose inspections cost about $13,000 per bridge. Clark’s cost was about $350 per bridge.

Burnett pointed out that $330,000 in state money was spent on consultants to inspect Jones County bridges, and that money “would have spliced a whole lot of rural pilings,” Saul said.

That brought up the biggest concern of the board. They gave Clark the go-ahead to advertise for bids for 64 pile-splicing projects on 18 bridges — which adds metal supports to failing piles.

“We don’t want to spend $3.5 million of Jones County taxpayers’ money, then be told that (the bridges) still aren’t good enough,” Saul said.

Castleberry said that splicing “can be acceptable,” but he offered no assurances.

“What if we spend a bunch of money and the people out of Arkansas still won’t accept it?” Burnett asked.

Castleberry said, “If you’re engineer OKs it …” 

Burnett cut him off with, “They’re saying our engineer is not qualified.”

Board president Jerome Wyatt said, “We have limited resources, so we have to use what we have wisely. We can’t waste money.”

That’s exactly what happened to Jasper County Supervisor Curtis Gray, who attended the meeting and spoke briefly.

“We fixed a bridge and it’s still closed,” he said. “It’s pitiful the way they’re treating us.”

Castleberry said that county engineers can have their design pre-rated by consultants, which  would enhance the chances of the bridge passing a re-inspection.

Saul said that if one or two pilings are bad, it doesn’t mean the bridge will collapse.

“There should not be any bad pilings,” Castleberry said. “They’re designed to have these piles to support the intended load.”

But Saul countered that bridges are designed to “handle 10 times the load they’re intended to support … way more than is ever going to go across it.”

Clark singled out a bridge on Bush Dairy Road that has been recommended for closure.

“My daughter, granddaughter, wife … they cross that bridge every day,” he said. “If it was in imminent danger of collapsing, do you think I’d endanger my family that way?”

It’s a money issue “that’s being couched as a safety issue,” Clark said. 

The firm that was hired by MDOT, Garver Engineering, is run by Nick Altobelli — a retired MDOT bridge engineer. He sent a letter to Clark last month stating, in part, “I respectfully cannot agree to appear in front of the Jones County Supervisors. This duty is the County Engineer’s responsibility.”

Clark gave several examples of bridges that he had ordered to be shut down over the years when he thought they were dangerous. He told the board that he didn’t know of any bridges that had collapsed in the state that were being inspected regularly.

He called Garver’s findings “overly conservative,” and suggested that was financially motivated, too.

A letter from Brandye L. Hendrickson, acting administrator of the U.S. Department of Transportation, to Gov. Phil Bryant says, in part, that the action plan from March 2017 was “developed to ensure unsafe bridges are closed in accordance with the National Bridge Inspection Standards.”

One of the actions ordered was the hiring of “state-selected consultants to inspect and load rate all locally owned bridges with timber sub-structure within two years.” After the inspections, 378 bridges across the state were recommended for immediate closure.

“Unfortunately, FHWA has conformed that many locally owned bridges are still not closed as deemed necessary,” she wrote, and “unsafe bridges are still open to the traveling public and the Mississippi bridge inspection program remains in non-compliance with the NBIS.”