Causeways deal or not, Bear Cut Bridge must be replaced
Today we are acutely aware of structural safety. That’s why we must act now to replace the 77-year-old Bear Cut Bridge, where the county said work had to start in 2013.
The 1925 Dade County Courthouse was closed last week after a safety inspection followed the tragic Surfside condominium collapse. A new courthouse is already in the works. Unfortunately, the county dragged years too long to transition smoothly.
Now an unsolicited private proposal for a grab bag of changes on the Rickenbacker and Venetian causeways has suddenly put Bear Cut Bridge replacement back into play after it fell off the radar eight years ago. The spotlight is welcome, but the solution for the bridge is shrouded in an offer that only the mayor’s team can view.
After inspecting the Bear Cut Bridge back in January 2012, Florida Department of Transportation officials notified the county they “found deterioration in a number of steel beams on the west bridge,” which was then 68 years old. County officials said the useful age of such bridges is 70.
But rather than replace the bridge for $70 million, the county voted to spend $25 million (costs then rose to $31.6 million) to repair superstructure that public works officials said could last 20 years before building a new bridge, which is a 10-year project. That was eight years ago. So if we start moving now, we can just be done in time – if no other problems surface.
During its own bridge inspections in 2013, however, the county found that under-seabed pilings were also deteriorating. Because of cost, only eight of about 400 were inspected, and two – 25% – were below the required safety level.
How much longer must we wait for action?
Bear Cut, a heavily-trafficked bridge that is officially too old to serve, is the only mainland-Key Biscayne link. If it ever had to close, Key Biscayne could be cut off for months.
One factor when the county kicked the can down the road on bridge replacement in 2013 was that it could impact the global tennis tournament then based on Key Biscayne. Tennis is now gone, as is the excuse not to replace a bridge when safety is a concern.
Now a mystery offering could take over both causeways and in the process replace the West Bridge. Nobody is saying how much that might raise Rickenbacker tolls, which are now repaying the 2014 bonds for Bear Cut Bridge repairs.
The private offer combines recreational amenities, resilience projects and the safety of both causeways and the bridge. That’s a whole lot for a consortium that has no track record but tells the county it can save tax money because private enterprise will profit from tolls and other ways the public has not heard. Unlike the county, however, tolls would pay for not only improvements but also investors’ healthy profits. The cost, again, is a mystery.
Because of the elements involved on separate causeways, this offering has many moving parts, yet the county must vote on a deal by fall. That’s far more complex than the county deciding to simply replace a deteriorating bridge for safety reasons and paying for it.
The question is whether the county uses tolls or taxes, or whether investors raise tolls even higher to cover costs and their own profits.
Perhaps investors also get to use causeway lands free for enterprises like restaurants or something else – again, the public is in the dark. The devil is in the details, and secrecy in the private control of public properties and revenue sources is a concern. One thing is certain: would-be partners are not offering the public a gift. Think of the long-under-wraps baseball stadium deal that cost taxpayers $3 billion.
Commissioners properly want to know more. They also should review engineering reports on the Bear Cut Bridge and both causeways. Safety must come far ahead of finding a way to get improvements without tapping county funds.
Public-private deals often look better on paper than in practice. The cost of the new privately built courthouse has risen far faster than the building.
But even if the causeways deal looks like a bonanza, government must not yield control of the safety of its bridges and roadways just to save money. Nothing is worth that.