Ozark area bridge may stay standing in Itawamba County

By Adam Armour/The Itawamba County Times

Talk of saving an old Ozark area bridge continued, Monday, as county officials explored available options.

The bridge in question, Walker Levee Bridge, was deemed unsafe for travel by the Office of State Aid Road Construction. Officially, the bridge is closed to vehicle traffic, although the county is still awaiting the signage that will block it. Without the bridge, the community loses access to the area’s sole boat ramp into the Tenn-Tom Waterway; if the bridge is not closed, the county could lose access to valuable State Aid funding.

It’s a no-win situation for both Ozark area residents and county officials, who claim there isn’t much they can do to outright fix the bridge, which State Aid deemed unfit for repair. The bridge has a posted weight limit of 11,000 pounds, though state officials say the bridge can no longer safely bear that weight.

The 126-foot bridge, which area residents say was constructed in 1923, crosses the Tombigbee River. Ozark residents say the bridge is still used on a near-daily basis.

With repair off the table, talk has now turned to constructing a new bridge. During their regular meeting Monday morning, Itawamba County supervisors discussed replacing the current bridge using a series of bailey bridges to cross the 80-foot gap. Bailey bridges are lightweight, portable truss bridges frequently used by militaries as a temporary way to cross gaps and rivers. They’re light enough to avoid requiring cranes and other special equipment to install, but also sturdy enough to support heavy military equipment, including tanks. Municipalities commonly purchase surplus bailey bridges from U.S. military agencies.

While the bridges themselves are easy enough to find — in fact, the county already has some — county engineer Carrson Neal said the trusses that give these bridges the extra support they need to span lengthy gaps are far less common. In fact, he said he’s never seen any become available to the public. He feared the county may have trouble locating them.

After some research, the board found an online military surplus store that claimed to have bailey bridge trusses available. State Representative Randy Boyd, who was present at the meeting, said he’d check with the local National Guard to see if they had any trusses available.

In addition to the bridge itself, however, Neal warned the board that they will likely face two other problems: The area surrounding the bridge is a wetland, and construction within a wetland area is heavily regulated by the federal government. Plus, given its age, there’s a good chance that any work on the bridge itself, including deconstruction, will fall under the scrutiny of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. If the bridge is ever declared a historical landmark, it can neither be torn down nor heavily modified.

The best option, it was decided, is to construct the new bridge next to the old. The new bridge will allow access to the boat ramp while the old bridge would be closed to everything but pedestrian traffic. Both convenience and history would be preserved. The board decided to move forward with this option in mind.

Community support for keeping the old bridge open has been strong. Last week, more than 30 people met at the bridge to discuss their concerns with county officials. Board members confirmed they have received numerous calls and requests to keep the bridge standing.

adam.armour@journalinc.com