MDOT regional engineer Kelly Castleberry, top photo, talks to the media as MHP troopers stand behind him before a bridge on Ellisville-Tuckers Crossing Road is barricaded at mid-morning Monday.

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MDOT brings muscle to close bridges, sheriff referring calls to state

As Mississippi Department of Transportation officials were having a press conference on an Ellisville-Tuckers Crossing Road bridge — one of 23 being shut down by the state in Jones County — supervisors were taking bids for repairing that bridge at their meeting on Monday morning.

“I hate that it came to all of this,” MDOT regional engineer Kelly Castleberry said, standing on the bridge with three Mississippi Highway Patrol troopers behind him, before a pile of dirt and barricades designated the bridge closed. “These bridges will fail at some point. We don’t want to see a carload of children go into the creek.”

Local and regional MDOT crews were out in force closing the bridges that have been deemed dangerous to the driving public.

Supervisors and other officials have said that local motorists will likely move the barricades and signs, then continue to drive across the bridges. 

“When we take those calls, we’re going to refer them to the state,” Sheriff Alex Hodge said, adding that his department barely has the resources to handle the call volume it gets now. “We’re already having to take calls by priority as it is.”

Supervisor Barry Saul made a motion that the board enter into a state of emergency, which allows supervisors to “move to immediately begin work” and “use any legal funds available to make repairs to bridges.” With that order, money that has been designated for other purposes can be used to make repairs that are necessary to get bridges reopened.

“I’m going to have mine repaired by the weekend,” said Saul, who has eight bridges on the list. “It will just be a matter of when we get an inspector down here to reopen them.”

Castleberry said that’s possible, but he wasn’t able to pinpoint when re-inspections could be done and who would pay for them, when he met with the Board of Supervisors almost two weeks ago.

“A lot can be repaired in a week,” he said. “Some just have one bad pile. We replace them all of the time in just a couple of days.”

In Clarke County, work has begun on its two bad bridges and work has begun on three of six bad bridges in Wayne County, Castleberry said. In Jasper County, there are eight bad bridges, he said. But Jones County, by far, has more bad bridges than any other county in the state, with 23 of the 102 that were ordered closed by executive order by Gov. Phil Bryant.

Supervisors have requested a special session for the legislature to talk about funding for the repairs.

Castleberry said he has heard the political theories about reasons for the immediate bridge closures, but he said none has any merit.

“(Politics) has nothing to do with it,” he said. “This is about health, life and safety. These bridges will fail at some point. It’s not a matter of if, but when. It’s imminent that failure will occur. That’s the only reason we’re out here. Public safety is paramount.”

When asked whose fault it was, Castleberry said, “We’re not here to assess blame … but they are county bridges, so they fall under the board of supervisors.”

MDOT officials took members of the media under the bridge and showed rotting pilings that were supporting it.

The bridge on Ellisville-Tuckers Crossing Road was one that had been designated by the board for replacement. Supervisors accepted a bid of $307,103.34 from MAGCO, Inc., over Tanner Construction’s bid of $367,700. The two Laurel companies also bid for a bridge project on Sanford Road and MAGCO had the low bid of $207,779.51 to Tanner’s $273,416.50.

Castleberry said that there are no residents who are “trapped” at home. On the dead-end roads that were affected — Shorty Ekes Road in the Glade Community and Stewart Drive in Moselle — parts of the bad bridges were closed.

“We figured out a way to get one lane open,” Castleberry said, “but no buses or fire trucks can go on them. The vast majority of (residents affected by closures), there is an alternate way. It may be inconvenient, but there is an alternate way.”

The bridge closures affect 41 of 130 school-bus routes, Jones County Schools Superintendent Tommy Parker said, and officials were concerned about emergency responders, mail carriers, garbage trucks and others who would be affected. Some students are having to be taken to a common area that will become a bus stop instead of being picked up at their residences.

Parker said there will be “leniency” for tardiness for bus drivers and parents as they bring their kids to school on their expanded routes, and he said there could be additional costs with overtime since bus drivers are paid by the hour.

Rodney Parker of the Jones County Emergency Operations Center was sending out notifications to emergency agencies as bridge closures occurred so their first-responders could be prepared.

Saul also said he was concerned about heavier traffic being diverted to “narrow, 16-foot roads that don’t have but 30 cars a day” getting torn up. “They weren’t built to handle that kind of traffic,” he said. “Who’s going to pay for that?”

Supervisors are moving forward with “pile-splicing” projects that Clark Engineering is bidding out in May. The process will add metal supports to piles that have been deemed deficient at a fraction of the cost and time of a full-blown replacement. Supervisors have expressed concern that the work and money may go to waste if federal inspectors don’t approve them.

Counties were in charge of bridge inspections on county roads until last year, when the Federal Highway Administration took over the job by hiring inspectors from outside firms at a cost of about $13,000 per bridge to test bridges with timber pilings. County Engineer Ronnie Clark charged $350 per bridge.

Supervisors got the order last year to close the bridges, but they ignored it, asking for an explanation from inspectors. Earlier this month, Castleberry came and talked to supervisors about the results of the tests on behalf of Garver officials, who refused to meet with the board. When the U.S. Department of Transportation threatened to cut off federal funding for MDOT — which gets about half of its budget from the federal government — unless the bridges are closed immediately, Bryant issued the order for the state agency to shut down the county bridges.