Railway car payments debate continues

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 14, 2008

There appears to be no agreement on how to end a four-year-old dispute over tolls paid by the Kansas City Southern Railway for cars crossing the Mississippi River on the Old U.S. Highway 80 bridge.

Warren County bought the privately owned bridge in 1948 and operated it until the nearby Interstate 20 bridge was opened in 1972. The U.S. 80 bridge has been closed to vehicle traffic since 1998 but it still carries rail traffic.

The Vicksburg Bridge Commission, appointed by supervisors to operate the bridge, voted in 2005 to assess the railroad a $14 per rail car fee. The railroad has refused to pay it.

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The railroad has been paying at a rate of about $4-per-car under a pre-existing 999-year lease, believed to be void.

Railroad officials could not be reached for comment.

The bridge commission in three meetings since May has failed to decide whether to take the railroad to court. The main issue is the cost of litigation.

“We have to take into account what it would cost them in legalities,” said Richard George, president of the board of supervisors.

George and commission chairman Robert Moss said there is no standing offer to transfer ownership of the 78-year-old structure from county hands to the railroad.

A deal with the railroad to purchase the bridge from the county for $5.5 million in 1997 fell through because of public pressure. Two attempts at establishing a pedestrian park and bicycle path using federal highway money have failed since then, the second of which in 2006 prompted KCS to threaten legal action.

The commission received a check for $193,530 on Nov. 17 covering September and October rail traffic, bridge superintendent Herman Smith said. According to car counts reported by the railroad, it reflects a rate of $3.75 per car.

The commission has moved money around to cover operating shortfalls. Despite declining interest payments from its checking account, the panel approved moving $721,000 to cover payments on infrastructure projects.

Much of it came from the final $538,950.30 paid on a $2 million road deck replacement began in late 2006 to fix problems with pieces of concrete that were falling off the bridge. That project is in a final phase after delays associated with the spring floods on the river.

Work continues by Shiloh Construction to replace ball bearings atop pier 2 and equalize wind shear devices, Moss said.

This month, bridge crews began to paint height clearance gauges on the structure’s main support piers in accordance with the U.S. Coast Guard after five barge tows struck the bridge during the spring floods. Marked scales show low- and high-water marks in relation to the span beginning at 90 feet and 60 feet, respectively.