Leaders in dark about loss of lights

Published 12:01 am Sunday, June 3, 2018

NATCHEZ — No authorities on either side of the Mississippi River Bridge were told that the $3 million lighting system would not be replaced until after the decision was made, officials said.

Natchez Mayor Darryl Grennell said the City of Natchez has received no formal notice that the lights would not be replaced on the bridge.

“The city has not been formally informed that the lights were going to be removed from the bridges,” Grennell said. “No one has informed us at all. I’m terribly upset about it. I didn’t know enough information to know what the rationale was to do it.”

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Vidalia Mayor Buz Craft said he found out that the lights would not be replaced when he went to talk to construction workers about when the tarps would be taken down off of the bridge a few weeks ago.

Former mayor and former executive director of the Mississippi Department of Transportation Butch Brown said he, too, was disappointed that the lights were taken down.

Brown was leading MDOT when the lights were first installed and helped negotiate the deal between Louisiana and Mississippi.

“The lights on the bridges signified that the two communities were connected, that we weren’t separated by the river,” Brown said. “The lights symbolize a lot of things to a lot of people. I think any bridge in our country is really a piece of art. Lighting is one of the things that makes our bridges a piece of art and signifies a broader community across the river.”

Jas N. Smith, public information officer for the Mississippi Department of Transportation, said no formal notice has been sent out about the bridge lights to his knowledge.

The decision to remove the lights permanently, Smith said, was likely made some time in 2017 before workers began painting the bridge.

Upon removing the lighting system, Smith said they found that more than 70-percent of the system was damaged.

“It’s more than just replacing the bulbs,” Smith said.  “When they took the actual light fixture down, there was damage to the entire thing. The bridge being metal, the vibration had just wreaked havoc on the system.”

Smith said the decision to remove the illumination completely was purely based on how much repairing the system would cost.

“We don’t have the funds to spend on a project that would strictly be decorative and not serve any kind of function,” Smith said.

“At the current time, MDOT has to focus all of our resources on maintenance and projects that improve safety for the traveling public.”

Smith said replacing the entire lighting system would cost approximately $1 million for both spans of the Mississippi River Bridge.

When the lighting was first installed beginning in 2009, the agreement between MDOT and the State of Louisiana was that Mississippi would care for the maintenance and upkeep of the lighting system through MDOT and Louisiana would pay for the electricity for the bridge through the Town of Vidalia’s ownership in the Louisiana Hydroelectric Station, Brown said.

Craft said the Town of Vidalia pays approximately $3,500 per-month, or $42,000 per-year, for the electricity that powers the bridge’s lights.

Smith said MDOT spends $20,000 to $30,000 each year on maintaining the lighting system, including replacing bulbs, repairing shorts caused by vibrations as well as other possible issues with the system.

The safety of the lighting system is not in question, Smith said.

The photo sensor required by the U.S. Coast Guard was installed within a year of the lights being turned on, Smith said, meaning all boats could turn the light off by shining a spotlight in a certain spot on the bridge.

“The safety of it is that this doesn’t contribute to the safety of the bridge. It’s aesthetically nice but it doesn’t actually serve a purpose.”

Grennell, however, said he saw great purpose in the bridge lights.

“The city has worked really hard to have the bridges illuminated,” Grennell said.  It was great for the citizens of Natchez and those who visited us here to have the bridges illuminated. I am upset.”

Grennell said he plans to send a letter to MDOT commissioners Monday about his concern for the removal of the lights.

Brown, on the other hand, said he is sure the lights will be replaced eventually.

“There’s a lot of days left in my body, and as long as I’m still living, I’ll try to get lights on the bridge,” Brown said. “I can assure you the lights will be back on in my lifetime. We will have the lighted bridge again.”