The historic Merrill Bridge will be closed to all vehicle traffic on Friday, June 5, Dist. Four Supervisor Larry Havard said after Monday's Board of Supervisor's meeting. It may never be reopened. The closure comes at the request of the Mississippi Department of Transportation, Department of State Aid Road Construction (State Aid).
State Aid made the request after it received a report from federal bridge inspectors last week. In that report the bridge inspectors apparently ordered the bridge closed until a load rating can be established, presumably by an engineering firm hired by State Aid.
It is a particularly bitter pill for the supervisors to swallow. As part of a years long effort to reopen the through-truss bridge spanning the Pascagoula River at Merrill, Thompson Engineering was paid $60,000 to establish a load rating. Thompson Engineering, according to Havard, gave the bridge a rating of 16,000 pounds or eight tons after the county paid Vice Construction nearly $1.2 million to do rehabilitation work on the bridge.
The work Vice Construction performed included new pilings, trusses and repairs to the superstructure. That work was in accordance to engineering designs prepared by Volkert Engineering. A third engineering firm, Batson and Brown, was paid by the county to oversee the project.
When the design work was finally completed last summer, Havard posted the bridge with a six ton weight limit, well within the recommendation made by Thompson.
"You could drive a freight train across that bridge," Havard said during an exchange with Bob Diamond during the board meeting, "but we opened that bridge so you could drive a car or pickup across it and they shut it down because of a load rating. Who's going to do the load rating?"
Diamond explained Volkert had a contract with State Aid to do the load rating.
"Of course," Havard said. "I would close the bridge too. It means more money in their pocket." The bridge inspectors are sub-contracted by Volkert.
Diamond said a load rating would come from State Aid following the federal bridge inspection report. "There is a lag," he said. "The load rating comes behind it." Diamond had no idea when a load rating would be issued, or if it ever would be issued. "They may say we can reopen it or it may be closed permanently," he said.
"Wait a minute," Dist. 2 Kelly Wright said. "We paid all of this money to have this engineering work done, we had the design work done, State Aid approved it and …"
"State Aid never approved it," Diamond said.
"How was it opened then?" Wright asked.
"It was opened without a rating," Diamond answered. Havard had already explained the work on the bridge was completed in September. Diamond had told him a load rating had to be submitted to State Aid, which Thompson Engineering was hired to provide. The eight-ton load rating prepared by Thompson was submitted to State Aid in January. Havard opened the bridge pending the official rating.
"How long does it take to get a rating?" Wright asked. "It has already been six months."
"I can't answer that question," Diamond said. "There is always a lag."
"Why did I have to pay to get a rating if State Aid was going to get their own rating?" Havard asked.
The 90-year-old bridge was closed to all traffic in 2012. The county has worked to get the money together for repairs since that time.
"I paid three engineering firms nearly $150,000," Havard protested during the board meeting.