WREG investigation uncovers troubled bridge in North Mississippi

COLDWATER, Miss. -  The State of Mississippi is putting its money on roads, investing $1 billion to make critical road and bridge repairs.

But WREG uncovered some of the most critical needs are in North Mississippi, on roads you drive everyday.

It's a  major thoroughfare, Interstate 55 in North Mississippi.

But it's a small bridge on a portion of the interstate that seems to have big trouble.

It's called the Hickahala Creek Bridge, and you may pass over it without a second thought.

But underneath it is potential danger.

"It does kinda bother me. I drive a lot for work. That kinda stuff matters I think,"  one driver told us.

WREG obtained bridge inspection reports from the Mississippi Department of Transportation.

We found in 2016 the Hickahala Bridge was labeled 'structurally deficient' and given a rating of 28. 5.

Any rating below 50 means the bridge needs federal money to be replaced.

Inspectors found exposed rebar, abrasions and cracks on the bridge deck. They said overlays were missing.

Underneath the bridge they found loose nuts and missing bolts.

We went to the Mississippi Department of Transportation in Jackson to find out if the Hickahala Bridge is safe.

"It has lost its capacity in some element," said Justin Walker, MDOT's State Bridge Engineer.

He says flooding in 2015 set off a flood of problems for the Hickahala Bridge.

"Those flood events actually scoured underneath the bridge which is removing the soil underneath the bridge. The flooding took the soil away and exposed the pilings underneath the footing of the bridge," said Walker.

The soil helps keeps the pilings in place and the bridge standing.

"The structural analysis proved it was still stable, but if we lost anymore soil it would become unstable. That would cause an element to fail or we would have to shut down the bridge to prevent failure," said Walker.

It might not have been a major problem until a couple of years ago when the nearby heavily traveled Coldwater River Bridge on Highway 51 was closed because of water damage.

The Hickahala Creek Bridge got a lot more use, which could mean a lot more wear.

"If you lost anymore, there could be failure," said Walker.

We asked him did that mean the bridge could have fallen.

"That is correct . So what we did. That kind of got us moving on the repair," said Walker.

MDOT came up with a plan to repair the missing soil and stabilize the bridge.

"We filled it with riprap, which is large rock. The goal is not to add capacity at this point but make sure the hole does not get larger," said Walker.

They finished it in 2016 saying the patch work will last 2 to 4 years.

They also came up with a contingency plan for a more permanent and expensive repair in case more soil is lost.

But dangerous bridges have been an issue around the country and worn out bridges have failed before.

The federal government recently released plans to fix the nation's crumbling infrastructure.

"We try to do the best we can, predict where these failures might be and head those off," said Walker.

It comes as Mississippi lawmakers just announced a major one billion dollar infrastructure plan that will address critical road and bridge needs.

It hasn`t been said where the Hickahala Bridge will be on the needs list, but the state says they plan to replace the 58-year-old bridge in 2020.

But Walker says the just passed Bridge Act which relies on existing dollars will actually take 25-million dollars from MDOT's budget, setting them back even further.

"I think what that would do is hamper our maintenance program so we would not be able to do what I mentioned, get ahead of the bridges in a maintenance format,"  said Walker.

For those who cross this bridge, the sooner the repairs, the better.

"All it would take is for something to happen to somebody for it to be a problem. For me personally I would like to think they would get it fixed, not just 90 percent fixed but 100 percent fixed," said Walker.

WREG's investigation uncovered conditions didn't improve much last year when the Hickahala Bridge was inspected again.

The 2017 Bridge Inspection Report still labeled the bridge 'structurally deficient', even though the rating improved to 48.0.

Inspectors still found exposed piles under the bridge. They rated it a 4 out of 9, saying it was in poor condition from advanced deterioration.

Mississippi officials are also looking at whether the state will also be able to use federal funds under President Trump`s Transportation Plan to help make improvements.