News 7 Investigation: Jones County bridge closures

News 7 Investigation: Jones County bridge closures
Photo Credit: WDAM
Photo Credit: WDAM

JONES COUNTY, MS (WDAM) - Drive around Jones County, and you'll most likely face a bridge closure. Currently, 23 bridges are shut down, by order of Gov. Phil Bryant, because of safety concerns.

The order came in an April 10 proclamation and as a surprise, although it shouldn't have, to lots of folks who rely on those bridges.

"We didn't expect this many to close No, we sure didn't," said Jones County Supervisor Barry Saul when asked about whether the county expected the bridges to close.

Saul said what he did expect was a few closures spread out over time. A News 7 Investigation shows the county should have seen the closures coming months ago.

In letters addressed to supervisors from the Office of State Aid Road Construction, all of the 23 bridges in question should have been closed before that proclamation from the governor. In fact, the Federal Highway Administration recommended nearly 400 bridges be closed across Mississippi last year because of failing inspections.

Most weren't, including the ones in Jones County. Because of that, the federal administration sent a letter to Bryant, dated April 5, 2018, saying the state's bridge inspection system was out of compliance, and federal money will stop flowing into Mississippi. Five days later, Bryant ordered bridges in 16 counties shut down.

When asked if the county was given any deadlines on certain bridges to be closed, Saul said not until 2018. The letters from the Office of State Aid give a different account.

Deadline notices for closures were sent to the county starting last year. A bridge on Shorty Ekes Road, where we interviewed Saul, is one of nine bridges addressed in a letter dated Dec. 11, 2017. The letter calls for immediate closure, with a deadline of late January, unless bridge problems are fixed.  
"I don't remember seeing that," said Saul when questioned about the deadline.

In fact, every one of the 23 bridges closed by order of the state in Jones County, came with a letter and a closure deadline, in bold print, for the county to meet.

That has some state leaders, like Sen. John Polk from Lamar County, raising questions about leadership in the counties hit with closures.

"I think they were not spending the money in the right place," said Polk.

Polk said bridge conditions have been on county radars for years, requiring proactive spending. On the list of counties with closures, three are in the Pine Belt. Jasper County has eight, while Wayne County has six. Jones leads the pack by far with 23.

"Jones County is a heavily-populated county, and I believe records will reflect, we're the second largest county in Mississippi in public road miles," said Saul when asked about how the county got to the point of having 23 bridges closed.

While Saul says the county is working hard to get bridges back open, he admits frustration from drivers could have been eased over months ago when the county was given closure deadlines.

"We dropped the ball. I dropped the ball as their county supervisor on letting them know two months ago that we was going to shut this down or we was attempting to shut this down or being told to shut this down," said Saul.

Saul said the county only has about $4 million to spend on bridges, which won't cover the cost.That's why the county is looking to the state for help.

Saul said the county can't pay for the work on its own and must get help from state leaders, or the roads will stay closed. Handing out state tax dollars won't come without opposition, though.

"I cannot support taking care of bridges in counties that were negligent, in my opinion, if we don't have something in there for the counties, like Lamar, that did their job," said Polk.

Jones County expects bridges needing repairs to be back open within 30 days. As for the ones needing replacement, Saul says to expect three to eight months. While state lawmakers do expect a special session to address the issue, so far, the governor hasn't made that call.