Farmers in Mississippi's Delta region fear harvest efforts will be hampered by road closures and bridges that can't hold heavy trucks.
The Delta Council, an economic development group in the region, says that structurally deficient bridges along Mississippi 6 between Batesville, Miss., and Clarksdale, Miss., are making it hard for trucks to move grain to market.
And in Leflore County, cotton farmers are eyeing repairs to bridges on Mississippi 7 south of Itta Bena that are detouring trucks bound for a local cotton gin.
The problems underscore warnings by transportation officials that they need hundreds of millions more each year to maintain Mississippi's roads and bridges. Figures show Mississippi has actually been making slow progress in reducing deficient bridges.
The Delta Council held a meeting Sept. 11 in Coahoma County to discuss the issue with the Mississippi Department of Transportation. Quitman County Chancery Clerk and farmer Butch Scipper said bridges along the highway can't hold legal loads of 84,000 pounds, forcing detours.
"Simply put, we have a permit to load grain in trucks to a level of 84,000 pounds, but the bridges along Highway 6 are posted at weight limits that are far below that load because they are more than 50 years old and deteriorating," Scipper said. "This situation is an economic disaster for the north Delta."
Scipper told the Clarksdale Press Register that some drivers have to detour an extra 50 miles. He said the problem is especially bad for farmers in Panola County
At the meeting, transportation officials said enforcement has been increased because the Federal Highway Administration threatened to withhold funding.
Northern District Transportation Commissioner Mike Tagert said all the bridges have outlived their useful life.
"We're upset about that as well," said Tagert, a Republican. "The reason the bridges are posted is because they failed certain points of inspection."
Tagert said the state considers replacing the Mississippi 6 bridges an "emergency type of situation" and plans to replace them regardless of federal funding. He said the work is estimated to cost $50 million and repairs could begin in 2016.
The situation is Iess severe in Leflore County. There, County Supervisor Wayne Self told the Greenwood Commonwealth repairs should conclude in time for most harvest traffic.
David Grossman, one of the owners of Quito Gin, located just south of the road closure, said trucks have been managing the detour without too many problems so far.
Grossman said that by Monday or Tuesday, his gin would be running at full capacity, unloading between 125 and 130 trucks daily for about 90 days.
"Most of our cotton harvest will start to the south of us, so that'll give us a window," Grossman said. "We won't really be hampered by (the road closure) for about 10 days."