By Kevin Edwards
BC Staff Writer
County engineers Robert Eley and Josh McPherson were asked by the Bolivar County Board of Supervisors to provide details as to why the county is experiencing so many bridge closings over the last few years.
Supervisor Donny Whitten said he has received numerous questions from his constituents asking for reasons.
Eley explained the county has had to adjust over the last three years due to the Federal Highway Administration assuming bridge inspection responsibilities.
“Up until three years ago, in the state of Mississippi, MDOT did all the state highway bridges with their in house staff, and then the county engineers did all the counties using the same set of protocols and we had to receive training for it,” Eley said. “We always did all of our bridge inspections annually, paid for by the federal government.
“About three or four years ago, the Federal Highway Administration decided they wanted to take over the bridge inspection program from the county engineers statewide. They hired their own engineering firms and they sent them in to do bridge inspections.”
He said modern bridges are built using concrete, but Bolivar County still has numerous bridges with timber pilings that makes them of immediate concern to inspectors.
“They’re expensive to replace,” Eley said. “They’re expensive to re-drive. Probably to re-drive all of them, $150,000 apiece, times 64 is a lot of money. We’ve sort of replaced them as needed.
“Federal bridge inspectors come in. They are unannounced. We do know the name of the firm, but we don’t know when they’re coming. They don’t want us out there with them. They don’t want local politics interjected into the bridge inspection process. They want a third-party to come in to do these bridge inspections that’s going to give an unbiased sort of spin on it. We have no control over that.”
He said federal inspectors use high-tech equipment that can take measurements of the bridge components that the naked eye would miss, and it takes time for the data to be processed and a determination to be made.
“That’s why we’re getting closures here in the last couple of weeks,” Eley said. “We’re just now getting closures on these bridges that are resulting from the inspections done back in the spring because they are just now doing the load ratings.”
He said the load rating of a bridge is a measurement of how much weight the bridge can safety sustain.
“When they issue a critical findings report, they give us 24 hours to barricade that bridge. That’s a federal mandate. You’re going to lose your federal funding for all your roads, all your bridges, all your stuff if you don’t comply.”
McPherson emphasized that the work on bridges has left the county overall in an improved state and that fewer bridges are being closed year by year.
“This year to date, four bridges have been closed,” McPherson said. “Last year, 17 bridges were closed. Year before that, 31 were closed. So, this year is significantly less than last year.”
He said federal inspectors prioritize timber piling on bridges due to its obvious deficiencies as compared to concrete and steel.
“That means an inspector went out and looked at the bridge, finished his on-site inspection, and left the bridge open. Whenever the guy at the office running those $50,000 finite element analysis computer program, he came back and said bridge can’t carry the weight, close it.”
Supervisor Larry King asked McPherson to explain for those who may have done their own visual inspection of the bridge why they needed to be closed.
“This isn’t major structural damage where piles are missing or completely rotted or significantly cracked,” McPherson said. “Whenever it’s from a load rating, it generally does not look in terrible shape.
Whitten asked, “In your professional opinion, where would this county rate statewide on these bridges?”
Eley held up his index finger, signifying number one.
“I promise you this county is doing as good as any and better if I’m not mistaken, and that’s not a political statement,” Eley said. “That is absolute fact.”
He said the way the county has managed its funds as well as the engineers getting ahead of bridge inspections and applying for repair funding before they are closed has allowed the county to stay ahead of the game.
“I want to thank the citizens of this county for being patient for the most part,” Whitten said. “They’ve been extremely patient and understanding. There have been some difficulties in certain areas, but we’ve always worked as a team and finally worked through it.
“I appreciate the report. I think it was needed since we are still facing multiple bridges are going to be closed. I’d like to encourage our team to continue to be proactive.
“It’s just an inconvenience. Some people understand it and some people don’t. But we’ve got to do it and we’re going to do it and that’s it.
“Be patient, we’re doing all we can,” Supervisor James McBride said. “We’re being proactive. We’re spending the money wisely. And we’re being diligent in our efforts. We know from time to time it causes an inconvenience. But you’ve got to put up with the bad in order to receive the good.
“I want the public to realize this: if the bridge is closed and a closure sign is there, it’s closed. Don’t remove that material and cross it. You’re crossing at a big risk,” said McBride.