Crumbling Bridges in Mississippi: How Declining Infrastructure Has Rippling Effects

Part One of a Two-Part Series

Aging bridges in Mississippi prove how much infrastructure is a bread-and-butter issue. More than half of the population lives in rural areas, and the state is among the poorest in the nation, having received between $2 and $3 for every dollar it sends to the federal government.

Currently, of the 10,757 bridges under local jurisdiction in Mississippi’s 82 counties, 426 remain closed. They are closed for repairs that will address them being able to maintain or increase the weight or size (known as the load) of the vehicles that can safely go across them, according to the Mississippi Office of State Aid Road Construction.

There have been a total of 542 bridges closed over a period of time because of routine inspections or after an April proclamation, declaring a state of emergency, by Gov. Phil Bryant. More than 100 have since reopened.

“Transportation is probably one of the most overlooked and taken-for-granted areas in our nation because it’s utilized every day, by just about everybody, so it’s very critical that it’s maintained, that it’s safe, and that it’s dependable,” explains State Aid Engineer Harry Lee James, who was newly appointed to this role several months back. “So the level of funding both at the state and federal level is very critical to its success, and it is particularly critical here in Mississippi. Agriculture, which is our No. 1 industry, is dependent on the transportation network.”

By addressing the bridge dilemma, the office is helping lead some crucial infrastructure fixes following a regional near-crisis that received national attention. Of the 17,072 bridges in Mississippi, 2,008 are classified as structurally deficient and 2,153 are posted for “load,” which may restrict the size of the vehicles that can cross them, according to the American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA).

Some of these bridges, including timber structures in remote pockets, are reaching the end of their lifespans. These local connectors — including those that maybe as few as 50 people drive over daily and those impacting the poorest of the state’s citizens — became a focus in 2017 after the Federal Highway Administration (FWHA) undertook a risk-based bridge analysis and realized the high number of local bridges in poor condition or worse.

Interest by the feds pointed to deficient bridges based on National Bridge Inspection Standards, potentially threatening the flow of federal dollars to the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) if the issue was not addressed. Closures mean, however, that some routes that residents use to get to work or to the store or to the doctor are or were no longer passable.

What has transpired in Mississippi is illustrative of the role federal oversight, policy and ongoing revenue provide in the nation’s transportation network, but also the necessity of the business community and stakeholders spearheading advocacy and outreach for increased and needed transportation funding. The Mississippi Economic Council, as the umbrella of the state Chamber of Commerce in Jackson, Miss., has taken a lead role in communicating the need for transportation investment being boosted and new legislation, and that local municipalities are financially strapped.

“Mississippi is a state of faith and a state of football,” says Mike Pepper. “In the fall, on every Friday night, school buses full of football teams and bands and cheerleaders travel on rural roads all throughout the state, with parents and grandparents in tow behind, and are all those people thinking, ‘Can I get from one side to the other?’ No, they have faith that they are going to get over there. No one stops at the beginning of a bridge, gets out and goes underneath and looks and then goes over the bridge. We are putting full faith in our government that what we are passing over is acceptable.”

Pepper, Executive Director of the Mississippi Road Builders’ Association, has become a field general for helping understand the state’s transportation troubles and why new revenue and ongoing funding are a must for the region. He meets with policymakers and helps oversee a group that represents the interests of more than 150 road and bridge contractors, and affiliates and suppliers — many of whom started with a bulldozer or dump truck and a dream to grow a business and support the local economy.

Pepper has lived the reality of higher steel, concrete, asphalt, other materials, and equipment costs that long ago outpaced the rate of return on the state’s transportation monies.

Recently, after Bryant called for a Special Session, Mississippi legislators agreed on a new bipartisan infrastructure package to fund transportation. They created a state lottery, voted to tap sports betting and online sales taxes, apportioned millions in oil-spill monies, approved new taxes on hybrid and electric vehicles, and agreed to issue bonds to fund road and bridge repairs and other projects benefiting the economy.

Pepper understands the impact of America’s aged rural bridges, and mentions numerous studies that have probed how money is spent by the state transportation department. But it also resonates with him that the state legislature, despite a wave of support from the public and industry and business groups, has not raised its gas tax since 1987.

“Things are built knowing you are going to have to do certain things over the course of years and that’s key here,” says Pepper. “By the time we ignore the maintenance stage and get into major reconstruction, we’re facing much more of a cost when we aren’t even able to afford to maintain them. That’s a point you have to try to get across to citizens.”

America’s worsening infrastructure is a pressing issue affecting more than the millions of people in the nation’s largest cities where there are many transportation modes and choices.

In more rural states, infrastructure is a lifeline.

Read part two of this story.

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