January 31, 2006

Highway project information online...or lack thereof...

The latter being mostly the case down here in Mississippi. Lately, it seems MDOT has been more interested in pushing its projects through rather than let the public know what's going on with them. Just today, the SunHerald ran an article about proposed improvements to MS 57 between I-10 and Vancleve that are a few years off, including mentioning that the Feds have signed off on the environmental assessment and that there's a preferred alternative. And this is one of the better cases, in that at least there was a section about the project on the MDOT website, even though the announcement about the public meetings that were held this summer wasn't posted on their website until well after the meetings were held.

And that's to say nothing about there being no MDOT news releases posted since New Year's, and getting to the news releases from last year is impossible due to some website glitches.

They could do a lot to learn how posting project information online can help the public input process...something MDOT has been sorely lacking in for a long time, not just with recent events.

January 30, 2006

Bridge debate, part X

A Letter to the Editor over the weekend, written by two people who were involved with the Renewal Forum held after the hurricane, basically blasted MDOT for their continued insistence on their proposed bridge design for the Biloxi-Ocean Springs span. They demand that MDOT scrap "Bridgezilla" and get on with building a temporary span along the path of the destroyed bridge (using the remaining pillars if possible), while everyone sits down and plans a new permanent bridge that everyone can agree with (or at least agree enough to get it built).

The two letter writers, and others of their peers, appear to have created two new websites to further their causes: www.msrenewalcoalition.org and www.bridgenow.org . The former looks to be a support page for the policies recommended by the Renewal Forum, while the latter is plainly a call for MDOT to scrap their design, build a temporary bridge, then plan and build a permanent bridge along the lines of that proposed in the Renewal Forum.

I took a look through the latter site this evening, in particular their FAQ. One particular entry in their FAQ perpetuates the theory, held by many of the Renewal forumers and those in Ocean Springs and the subject of several letters over the last month, that MDOT's 6-lane bridge proposal is really a "10-lane bridge".

I immediately sent an E-mail to the bridgenow.org people explaining the fallacy of this misinformation (I called it misinformation, anyway). Some of the particulars of MDOT's bridge proposal are available on their website if you know where to look (trust me, it took some digging). Their proposal is for, in each direction, 3 12-ft driving lanes, an 8-ft inside shoulder, and a 10-ft outside shoulder. For them to squeeze 5 lanes out of that, they would have to eliminate both shoulders and make the driving lanes about 10.5 feet wide, neither of which would be likely to pass muster with FHWA (the Feds), who would have a vote in the matter. Although it would result in only 6 feet of combined shoulder, having 4 lanes each way would be a future possibility, but 5 lanes each way is a bit of a stretch.

To my surprise (and impressment), I received a reply from a Dr. Jeffrey Bounds, who agreed that 10 lanes would be a stretch and said they would revise the FAQ to reflect such.

Goes to show that, even amidst disagreement (I disagree with the coalition on how many lanes the bridge needs, though I generally agree with their other positions on the bridge), there can still be civility. MDOT would do well to take a lesson on that...

January 26, 2006

More bridge blues for MDOT

What little of MDOT's public image remains continues to take a downward slide, with two more recent events. First, they only received one bid for the Biloxi-Ocean Springs bridge replacement, which came in significantly higher than estimated. And the company that made that bid also bid on the Bay St. Louis bridge and preferred the latter if they had to choose between the two. So while MDOT now has a contract out for replacing the Bay St. Louis bridge (albeit $66 million higher than estimated), they're still without a contract for their Biloxi-Ocean Springs plan.

And as if that wasn't enough, the Coast Guard has now weighed in on the Biloxi-Ocean Springs bridge issues (now centered over the need of a drawbridge vs. a fixed-span), saying that MDOT needs to resolve those issues before they'll grant approval. Not only has Trinity Yachts said they need a drawbridge, but Northrup Grumman has piped in with the same concern, as has Harrison County's economic development coordinator.

It got back enough the past few days to where your's truly weighed in with a Letter to the Editor in the SunHerald. I basically lambasted both sides for ignorance when it came to the fight over adding a drawspan to MDOT's bridge proposal. And lo and behold, this morning in my E-mail box was an E-mail from the vice president of Trinity Yachts explaining his position and basically taking issue with my calling them ignorant.

Will be interesting to see how this all pans out, with there now being 4 major issues surrounding the bridge replacement (drawspan, number of lanes, location, and lack of bidders). Unfortunately, I don't think the final product will wind up serving the best interests of the Coast.

January 14, 2006

6-lanes for Biloxi-Ocean Springs Bridge

The handwriting is on the wall, so to speak. After hearing concerns from Ocean Springs Mayor Moran (who is against a 6-lane replacement for the Biloxi-Ocean Springs bridge) and reviewing traffic studies for the bridge done by both MDOT and the city, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has endorsed MDOT's proposal for a 6-lane span. Short of a lawsuit, which would only delay the bridge that much further (something NEITHER side wants), MDOT's bridge proposal will proceed.

Somewhat unrelated, but possibly affecting the bridge proposal even further, is a letter sent by Harrison County Development Commission Executive Director Leland Speed to MDOT requesting a drawspan anyway, in order to promote additional industry along the county's Industrial Seaway. The driving force behind the letter is Trinity Yachts, who moved onto land along the seaway after Katrina and is a builder of large yachts. One yacht proposal they are bidding on would require a vertical clearance of up to 120 feet, significantly higher than the 85-foot clearance that MDOT's bridge proposal allows. The concern is that building a fixed-span either that low or without a drawspan will hamper industrial recruitment efforts, not to mention Trinity Yachts' hopes of winning the "mega-yacht" contract.

My thoughts: though I don't like the additional mainenance/operational costs of keeping a drawbridge at Biloxi-Ocean Springs (and neither does MDOT), there may be significant merit in keeping a drawbridge there, in that industrial development along the Seaway would help to diversify the Coast's economy plus give it a springboard to bounce back from the hurricane's destruction. Using the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge along the D.C. Beltway as an example, a well-designed drawbridge will reduce the number of drawbridge openings required, yet still have the flexibility that industry along the Seaway requires. My suggestion would be for a drawbridge with a 65 to 70 foot clearance, with drawspan openings by appointment and prohibited (except for emergencies) during peak traffic hours.