The Forrest County Board of Supervisors met with State Aid Engineer Harry Lee James at their regular meeting on Monday, Dec. 21 to discuss the emergency closure of the Chaney Creek Bridge on Brooklyn Janice Road in Brooklyn.
The closure affects 60 families that live in the area. Detours through the government-owned land on Grapevine and Rifle Range roads add about a 20-mile drive to commutes. There is also a daycare and school located near the bridge that will need to reroute student transportation.
The bridge failed inspections by Garber Engineers earlier this month due to the length of its wood pilings. It had previously passed inspection in 2018 after the county made repairs in 2015.
“We’ve prided ourselves on maintaining our wood piling bridges,” Board President David Hogan said. “Every two to three years, we spend several hundred thousand dollars or more replacing wood pilings. In fact, this bridge in question we spent $50,000 to $60,000 on in 2015.”
He worried about what this sudden closure could mean for policy changes concerning the other wood piling bridges in the county. Forrest County currently has 59 wood piling bridges, the second highest in the state.
Hogan continued, “This scares you to death. It’s scary if these inspectors can come down with no notice and shut down a bridge that we’ve repaired in the last several years and that previously passed inspection. If they had just given us some notice … (and) even my own engineer is saying, ‘I don’t understand it.’ I’m scared you’re going to come down here and shut them all down.”
He voiced concerns about needing to proactively take a $30-40 million bond to raise revenue for bridge replacement for all of the bridges before they were shut down by the state. James agreed that idea could be a good option to consider in the future.
“It’s not what you see that is the issue; it’s what you don’t see,” James said. “The pilings that were replaced (in 2015) were probably 30-foot in length so that only makes a five-foot penetration into the ground. It doesn’t have a lot of bearing capacity. There’s also so much sand down there. At any time, like a wave on the beach, (the water) could wipe away a good level of support.”
Engineers rated the bridge for an 11-ton load bearing after repairs in 2015. James said that even a loaded school bus is not supposed to go across it. He believes inspectors should have addressed the issue when they assessed the load rating in 2018.
“We do recognize that all the repairs by the counties are typically done at their own expense. We’re sensitive to that, but it goes without saying that if it’s an unsafe bridge we have to close it,” James said.
He continued, “The first thing I saw when I turned on that road was the schools that are right there. How many of those buses are going across that bridge on a daily basis? At the point where we see something like that, we can’t afford to not say anything. There’s no monitoring at the local level of loads. How many log trucks go across that thing? It’s the log truck that’s going to do the damage, but it’s the school bus or the church bus following that’s going to get some folks killed.”
Hogan asked for clarification on the state’s policy concerning wood piling bridges. James confirmed that the state recommends that wood pilings are no longer sufficient for most bridge structures.
“This one stings the most for me because it almost feels like the rules are changing,” Hogan said. “For you to say that wood pilings are no longer sufficient, that is news to me. We’re repairing bridges right now with wood pilings. That policy would send a shockwave across the state to county officials. You’re talking about billions of dollars.”
James clarified that the state recommendations for steel or concrete pilings had been in place for several years. He added that wood pilings were still appropriate for some repairs, but he called them a “Band-Aid” for long-term solutions.
Hogan said, “When (District 5 Supervisor Chris) Bowen and I came on the board 12 years ago, we had that discussion about if wood pilings were the way to go or should we do concrete. Mr. Bowen wanted to continue to help the timber industry. It was (engineer) Raymond Dearman that said timber pilings are good, so that’s been the policy that we’ve been following. I don’t think it was the right decision now in hindsight.”
Bowen added, “We’re constantly working on our bridges. We’ve been working on our bridges, been engineering all these bridges. We’ll go forward from here with a different mindset.”
He also asked for information about available funds to help with construction costs. State Aid receives an annual $25 million allotment from the federal government. They used to split that money into $20 million for construction aid and $5 million for inspection costs, but now, all $25 million goes toward inspections to meet federal requirements.
“We have asked our federal delegation, and we have submitted for the building grant to assist us with federal monies on some of these things in very recent history. It was just last year that we put in to ask for federal help to help us with these timber piling bridges,” Bowen said.
“I think that is a stark statement that federal highways are going to use all our money that we used to use for construction and inspection, but at the same time when we apply for a federal build grant to help us replace these timber piling bridges, and the city (gets it) to build overpasses for convenience’s sake,” he added. “The federal government, in essence, has got their priorities mixed up in my opinion. Waiting on a train looks less important as actually getting across a waterway.”
Both Bowen and Hogan expressed gratitude to the state for “stepping up” with programs to help recuperate some of the lost federal aid.
“We will take full advantage of that,” Bowen assured.
Hogan added, “We also need to thank (Gov.) Tate Reeves for allowing the sales tax revenue to retire bond issues. We don’t want to alarm the public that we’re going to do a bond issue and raise everybody’s taxes. I spoke personally to Tate prior to the revenue coming out, and he was receptive to it. He put it in the language of the legislation that those monies could go to retiring debt as it pertains to bridges. We are very thankful for that because it might be our saving grace.”
The board unanimously approved a $680,000 emergency repair to the bridge as recommended by County Engineer Nick Connolly. The repairs include replacing the wood pilings with concrete ones that meet state standards and recommendations. Connolly estimates that repairs will take five to six months.
In other news:
• The board accepted a $279,000 bid from Column Construction to repair the Main Street bridge in Brooklyn. The bid came in at $50,000 over the estimated costs, but Connolly recommended that it was the “cheapest and best” option.
• The board also voted to purchase a sponsorship for the Boy Scout Troop 93 in Parkway Heights. Someone recently stole the troop's trailer and camping equipment, and they estimate replacing the items will cost $3,500. In an email to supervisors, the troop expressed that they couldn’t fundraise due to COVID-19 restrictions. Hogan pledged $1,000 out of his recreational fund since the troop was in his district. The other four supervisors then gave $250 from each of their rec funds, bringing the total sponsorship to $2,000.
• Additionally, supervisors appointed Amber Travis and James Wilcox to the Southeast Mississippi Community Investment Corporation Board of Directors at the recommendation of the Area Development Partnership. They then took under advisement appointments to the Forrest County Agricultural High School Board of Trustees and the North Forrest Fire Protection District.