Court denies Mississippi counties’ petition to reopen unsafe bridges
June 13, 2018
More than 100 unsafe bridges in Mississippi remain closed indefinitely after a state judge refused to order the governor to reopen them.
Gov. Phil Bryant was the target of a lawsuit by two counties that sued for injunctive relief after an April 10 proclamation from the Magnolia State’s top executive ordered the state’s transportation and public safety departments to immediately close 102 bridges that had been deemed unsafe by inspectors.
The May 23 ruling by Chancery Judge William Hale Singletary found that when the governor acted to close the bridges he “based his determination upon numerous investigations and reports by engineering professionals.” The judge issued an order denying the counties’ request for relief and dismissing the lawsuit.
“Finding that the governor acted with the authority granted him in the Mississippi Constitution and Mississippi emergency management law, the court may not substitute its own judgment concerning whether the conditions create a ‘local emergency,’” Hale stated in his order.
Jasper and Smith county officials, who filed the injunction against Bryant, argued that bridge conditions are not considered a state of emergency or state of disaster. Therefore, the governor overstepped his power and authority by relinquishing the counties of their jurisdiction over those bridges and affected roads.
Governor called lawsuit ‘extremely disappointing’
In an interview with WLAU 99.3 FM on May 4, Bryant referred to the lawsuit as both “extremely troubling” and “extremely disappointing.”
“What my first responsibility is as governor, and I think every elected official, is to try as we might to ensure the safety of the general public,” Bryant told WLAU.
Bryant referred to the Florida bridge collapse that occurred earlier this year at Florida International University in Miami when highlighting the dangers of a crumbling infrastructure. Six people were killed and eight cars were trapped when the pedestrian bridge collapsed just days after being installed.
During the interview, Bryant explained the role of the federal government to inspect highways. The governor had received a call from Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who told him to close the bridges or possibly lose federal funding for the entire state.
“This was a very obvious decision for me,” Bryant said. “For them to sue the governor of the state of Mississippi for doing his job, it’s just extremely disappointing.”
Bryant said the move should not have come to anyone’s surprise. The Mississippi DOT and Federal Highway Administration worked with counties as far back as November 2016. A plan of action was agreed upon in March, but Bryant said the counties decided not to adhere by the rules and regulations. He said if the counties decided not to do their job, then he would do it.
“I am pleased with the court’s decision,” Bryant said in a statement following the judge’s decision. “My only motivation for declaring the state of emergency was to ensure public safety, which will remain my most important responsibility and my highest priority.”
Jasper and Smith counties filed a lawsuit on May 3 against the governor, the Mississippi Department of Transportation, the Mississippi Department of Public Safety and the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency for their role in shutting down 102 bridges deemed unsafe by the state’s Office of State Aid Road Construction.
In March, the two agencies developed an action plan to close all bridges that are considered unsafe per National Bridge Inspection standards. On March 19, the Federal Highway Administration discovered that many of these bridges were still open.
The governor’s office received a notice on April 5 from the U.S. Department of Transportation notifying the state that if these bridges do not close soon there could be consequences, including losing access to federal funds. Less than a week later, Bryant ordered the closures.
Approximately 65 percent of state highway and bridge spending comes from federal funds, according to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association.
According to the proclamation, unsafe bridges are in the counties of Amite, Carroll, Clarke, Greene, Hinds, Humphreys, Itawamba, Jasper, Jones, Lauderdale, Leake, Lincoln, Newton, Smith, Wayne and “other parts of the state of Mississippi.”
The two counties claim the named plaintiffs “used various methods to block access to the bridges on the closing list” without notifying the boards of supervisors. According to the lawsuit, some of the bridges were blocked by piles of dirt dumped on both sides of the bridge.