Bridge re-opens today

Published 5:47 pm Thursday, November 1, 2007

Thousands of Gulf Coast residents are expected to celebrate a milestone in their recovery from Hurricane Katrina with the opening Thursday of a bridge that replaces one demolished by the storm.

Two of the bridge’s six lanes are scheduled to open to traffic on Thursday evening, following a daylong celebration at both ends of the $338 million structure. The new span reconnects the casino resorts of Biloxi with the quaint shops of Ocean Springs to the east.

Around 35,000 cars a day crossed a four-lane drawbridge between the two cities before the Aug. 29, 2005, hurricane destroyed it. The new 1.6-mile bridge over Biloxi Bay restores the last broken link in coastal U.S. 90.

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“It’s going to restore our sense of community,” said Vincent Creel, a spokesman for the city of Biloxi. “The beauty of this bridge is that it’s built for the future. It’s built for increased traffic. It’s built for the generations to come.”

Farther to the west on U.S. 90, Katrina also destroyed a two-mile bridge over the Bay of St. Louis. A new bridge between the cities of Bay St. Louis and Pass Christian partially opened in May.

The new bridge to Biloxi gives a long-awaiting boost to a casino industry that already is raking in record profits in Katrina’s aftermath.

Isle of Capri, at the foot of the washed-out bridge, was the second Gulf Coast casino back in operation when it reopened in December 2005. Today, 11 casinos are operating on Mississippi’s coast — only one fewer than before Katrina hit.

Isle of Capri spokesman Rich Westfall said the casino, which “went from the best location the hardest location to get to” after Katrina, hopes the bridge traffic will increase its business.

“I think it’s going to change the dynamics of the marketplace,” he said. “It will spread the market out a little bit.”

All six lanes of the new bridge — and a path for pedestrians and bicyclists — are scheduled to be open by next April. Ninety-five feet above water at its highest point, the new span is designed to weather the elements better than the drawbridge shredded by Katrina’s storm surge.

The size of the new bridge was a sore spot for some local officials, especially those on Ocean Springs’ side of the span.

Ocean Springs Mayor Connie Moran pressed the state Department of Transportation to limit the bridge to four lanes. Moran, an advocate of the “New Urbanism” architectural movement’s emphasis on creating compact, walkable cities, feared that a bigger, wider bridge would turn her city’s main artery into an “expressway.”

Two years later, however, Moran said she is pleased by some of the features of the new bridge, including its bike path, “see-through” railings and decorative lights. She described the bridge as “Mississippi’s most notable infrastructure.”

“We need to put politics and personality behind us, come together and celebrate reconnecting the coast,” she said. “This is the most significant milestone in the post-Katrina recovery period.”

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and Donald Powell, federal coordinator for Gulf Coast rebuilding, are scheduled to participate in a ribbon-tying ceremony at the center of the bridge on Thursday afternoon. The bridge is expected to open to traffic in the evening.