A Rarity Both Sides Are Correct In Bridge Repairs Dispute
Written by Michael Lewis on April 25, 2013
By Michael Lewis
Seldom are both sides at polar extremes of a vital issue correct, but it does happen. The battle over a decayed bridge to Key Biscayne is one of those times.
Most commissioners last week followed the lead of county Mayor Carlos Gimenez in saying that the Bear Cut Bridge must be fixed now for safety and convenience rather than build a new bridge.
But Xavier Suarez and Juan C. Zapata argued to allow the Village of Key Biscayne to first fund an inspection of the pilings’ condition under the seabed, out of concern that they might be weakened.
In the end the commission did both: affirmed the mayor’s order to make $31 million in repairs now while allowing the village to fund a concurrent $50,000 study of the pilings.
While the simultaneous paths seem contradictory, meaning one must be wrong, both make sense.
The Bear Cut Bridge is Key Biscayne’s lifeline. Other than by boat, it’s the only link to the mainland for thousands of residents and tens of thousands of visitors to the village, state and county parks and the annual Sony Open tennis classic.
Parts of the unsafe bridge now are closed. Engineers are unsure how long another lane, barred to trucks but open to cars, could last. Closing it would add to bottlenecks.
Even worse, there’s no guarantee that the bridge’s newer half Ð built for two lanes but handling three in a jerry-rigged roadway Ð will be safe for long.
All those factors led officials to plan $31 million in repairs aimed to keep the bridge open 40 more years. A replacement, they say could take eight to 10 years to build Ð though that seems far too long if officials felt any urgency.
But Key Biscayne residents worry that the repaired bridge would sit on the pilings placed in 1944 whose undersea status hasn’t been inspected.
Bridges are engineered to last 70 years, and this one is 69. Further, World War II construction when the best materials were diverted to the war effort didn’t have to meet today’s standards. Moreover, wind, waves and salt intrusion must have taken a toll over those years.
Wouldn’t it be wise to inspect the underpinnings of a bridge that will use $31 million in public funds?
Commissioner Dennis Moss pointed out correctly that the county won’t fund bridge repairs. While the county will pay $3 million to move the water pipe to the Key that runs under the bridge, the $28 million for the bridge itself will come from bonding future tolls from the Rickenbacker Causeway.
That being so, he said, it’s OK to spend now for repairs even if the county might soon replace the entire bridge because foundations actually were too weak to last. After all, tolls would also then pay for the new bridge.
Meanwhile, he noted, the road to Key Biscayne would stay open.
He’s correct about the need to keep the road open, though $31 million that might be wasted if a new bridge is then needed is not free even if the county doesn’t take the money out of taxes.
Miami-Dade residents pay causeway tolls. On April 1 they began to pay more to finance bridge repairs. It’s free money for the county, but not for residents.
Mayor Gimenez opposed the village’s study. The county’s own engineers have said repairs could last 40 years, and the village’s engineers should too, he said, since all good engineers should reach the same conclusion.
That’s questionable, but surely the two teams should have the same information on which to base a decision.
The county’s consultants haven’t probed the undersea status of pilings, and the county’s in-house engineer told Mr. Gimenez that the $31 million contract the mayor has authorized doesn’t require that either Ð only that engineers must certify the final work is safe, study or no study.
Only the Village of Key Biscayne’s engineering consultants must examine the undersea pilings Ð that’s what they’re hired to do. So it’s possible that their findings won’t match the county’s because they’ll have more facts.
Mayor Gimenez conceded that if the village finds undersea problems, it might alter the county’s path. It should. It’s better to base decisions on verification than supposition.
Meanwhile, both sides are right. Move forward now to repair the current link to Key Biscayne. But at the same time verify that predictions of undersea conditions are correct.
If in fact piling conditions have been accurately estimated the county should move quickly. If not, as the mayor told commissioners, the county will have to reevaluate its plans.