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|Tugboat pilots blinded by the lights|
BY TORI STILWELL
Although the new lights lining the deck of the Mississippi River bridges might be pretty, the bulbs are having an unexpected--and potentially dangerous--effect on water navigation.
Eric Washburn, the U.S. Coast Guard bridge administrator for the Eighth District Western Rivers Bridge Branch, said the $3 million aesthetic lighting is making it difficult for barge pilots to see the red and green navigation lights on the Natchez-Vidalia Mississippi River Bridges.
Washburn said barge pilots use the navigation lights to steer toward the center of the channel, ensuring safe passage.
"They aim for the green lights," he said. "They want to stay between the reds."
A pilot's inability to detect the navigation lights could skew the barge's course and perhaps result in disaster.
Washburn said a barge company called his office in May, alerting officials of the bridges' makeover during a time when engineers with the Mississippi Department of Transportation were testing the new lights. The decorative lighting was officially turned on during a June 25 public ceremony.
"They're used to seeing the bridge a certain way," Washburn said. "We had one company call us and said, 'Hey, this looks different.'
"Then we called DOT, and they were just doing a test, but it wasn't the test period we had approved to run."
Jim Eggleston, the resident engineer for the Mississippi Department of Transportation, oversaw the installation of the new lighting and received the phone call from a coast guard official informing him of the complication.
"I would think it would make the bridges stand out more to the boat captains, which would make it easier to go through.
"Some of them don't share that opinion," he said, "but I don't drive down the river."
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