Community rallies to keep Ozark area bridge standing

By Adam Armour/The Itawamba County Times

Despite significant outcry from residents of the area, the Ozark community’s Walker Levee Bridge is being closed.

Standing on the east end of the bridge, county engineer Carson Cook explained to a crowd of more than 30 people, including members of the Ozark community and county officials why the Office of State Aid Road Construction is mandating the bridge be closed.

Roadways and bridges more than 20 feet long have to meet certain standards set by the Federal Highway Administration, which has been inspecting area roadways and bridges. The Walker Levee Bridge does not meet those standards, Cook said, and is to be closed immediately. Digital photographs must also be taken of the closed bridge and sent in to the state as proof of the county’s compliance.

County officials are currently waiting on delivery of signage that will block access to the bridge.

If the bridge isn’t closed, the county will lose access to valuable State Aid funding.

The 126-foot bridge, which area residents say was constructed in 1923, crosses the Tombigbee River and leads to the area’s sole boat ramp into the Tenn-Tom Waterway. Ozark residents say the bridge is still used on a near-daily basis. The bridge has a posted weight limit of 11,000 pounds, though state officials say the bridge can no longer safely bear that weight.

“You don’t think this bridge can hold that kind of weight?” asked Itawamba County Fourth District Supervisor Eric “Tiny” Hughes.

In short, Cook said, “No.” While the bridge likely bears that weight every time a vehicle hauling a boat travels over it, the age of the structure makes it unsafe. It might not collapse over night, but that doesn’t mean it won’t ever buckle.

“It’s like playing Russian roulette,” he said. “It might be fine for a year or more. But then, one day, a beam falls out and a car goes into the creek and someone dies. You don’t want to take that chance.”

In order to reach the bridge, travelers have to cross to smaller bridges, each with a posted weight limit of 9,000 pounds.

The bridge also can’t be repaired. Most of the trouble lies in the bridge’s steel truss, which Cook said is simply too old to be fixed through normal means.

“This steel is 100 years old,” he told the crowd, pointing to the bridge’s truss. Attempting to repair it with welding would only weaken it further, he added.

“So, they aren’t going to let us fix this bridge at all?” asked Supervisor Ike Johnson. The bridge lies in his district.

The 126 foot Walker Levee Bridge crosses the Tombigbee River and leads to a boat ramp. (Photo by Adam Armour)

“No,” Cook said. “As far as [the federal and state government’s] concerned, this bridge is not fixable.”

County officials questioned Cook about several possible solutions, including having the bridge added to the state’s historical registry (Cook warned against this; once a landmark is deemed historical, it can’t ever be removed or replaced) or reinforced by using a surplus military bridge.

The most cost-efficient solution, it was determined, is for the county to tear the old bridge down and construct a new timber bridge in its place. Cook gave an off-the-cuff cost estimate of around $250,000 to build such a bridge.

The Walker Levee Bridge isn’t alone in failing to meet State Aid’s standards: Two bridges in Itawamba County’s Fourth District — one on Molly Harmon Springs Road and one on Bankhead Road — have also failed inspection in recent years. The former was able to be repaired, but the latter has been closed.

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