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Bridge lights: Once stimulus, now just pork

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act from the Obama Administration was meant to create jobs and stimulate the American economy.

Known as the stimulus package, the Obama administration committed more than $800 billion dollars to what it called “shovel-ready” projects.

One of those shovel ready projects was the lighting of the Mississippi River Bridges between Vidalia and Natchez.

Of the $3 million dollars that was expended for the projected the Mississippi Department of Transportation committed $1.7 million dollars to the project using stimulus package dollars.

Eight years later, the money spent on the project seems more like a waste than a stimulus, now that it has been revealed that the bridges will remain in the dark after the current construction work on the westbound bridge is complete.

Records show that nearly 30 jobs were created from the project —  jobs that have now come and gone.

Instead of a brilliant example of a project that not only highlighted one of the landmarks of the Mississippi River and became a tourism draw for the area, the bridges will become another failed example of government pork.

In an effort to have a “shovel ready” project for stimulus funds, it appears that the lighting system created for the bridge may have been a product of hasty engineering. Engineers and designers of the lighting system apparently didn’t consider the long-term effect car and truck traffic on the bridge would have on the lights. Lighting designers failed to consider how the lights would affect the ability of pilots to maneuver barges up and down the river at night.

From the beginning, the project had problems. Less than a year after the lights were turned on, MDOT officials had to shut off the lights because of overheating issues. Cooling fans to the control box failed for the 406 lights that were installed.

Not long after the repairs were complete, MDOT officials announced in 2012 more work to the navigation and aviation lighting systems they called “outdated” and in need of “constant maintenance.”  Replacement parts had “become difficult to replace,” they said.

The decorative lights also continued to face electrical issues.

At the time, Southern District Commissioner Tom King said the goal was to make the bridge lighting permanent and sustainable. New lights will be a better grade and will last longer, he said.

Officials were committed to  upgrading the lighting to a system that would last a long time.

Six years later, any past promises to make the project permanent have receded into the darkness.

The lights are gone and MDOT officials are more than willing to make excuses for the project’s failures — excuses that do not include any responsibility for what may have been a hastily conceived and shoddily engineered project.

In effect, the failure to plan a project that was not only safe for river traffic but also cost effective and low maintenance for MDOT officials, has wasted $3 million dollars of taxpayer money.

And in the end, two communities that took great pride in the project, now are left in the dark.

Ben Hillyer is the news editor of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3549 or by email at ben.hillyer@natchezdemocrat.com.