If you depend on the Venetian Causeway to get to your home or job, you have four to six months to find an alternate route because the historic roadway will be closed for several months so workers can conduct emergency repairs on a 730-foot-long weakened segment of the drawbridge closest to Miami.
More details emerged Wednesday about the coming six- to nine-month closure of the 87-year-old roadway in the aftermath of an official announcement late Tuesday by Miami-Dade County officials during a meeting of the Venetian Way Neighborhood Alliance.
Though the closure was first disclosed by Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Giménez in a memo to county commissioners April 11, the implication of the news wasn’t really grasped by commuters and others until top county officials spoke in detail about the problem Tuesday night.
“What a treat it’s going to be going to Miami Beach these days,” said Therese Gagne, who lives in the Miami area and who periodically uses the causeway to see clients and friends in Miami Beach. “Now the trips will take longer because you have to take the MacArthur Causeway that is full of construction because of the port tunnel, or the Julia Tuttle Causeway that is always full of traffic going to or coming from the airport.”
The Venetian issue figured prominently Wednesday during a meeting of the City of Miami Beach Commission, where Miami-Dade Commissioner Sally Heyman addressed the problem.
“It’s going to be an absolute disruption and termination of service for nine months,” Heyman said.
The silver lining in the disruption is that the alternate routes will be free; the Venetian charges a $1.75 toll. Separately, county officials said the $24 annual administrative fee charged Venetian Island property owners for toll transponders has been suspended — not because of the bridge repairs but because of unrelated litigation.
Michael Bauman, Miami-Dade causeways division chief, told the Tuesday night meeting that because of the litigation the fee will no longer apply and those who have not paid it — a majority of transponder holders — do not need to worry about it for now.
“I am seeking further direction on what to do about those that have paid,” Bauman said at the meeting.
The bridge repair will delay implementation this summer of the toll conversion on the Venetian to SunPass. The system is scheduled to go online on the Rickenbacker Causeway in the summer.
Equipment will continue to be installed on the Venetian, but the SunPass conversion will not take effect until after the bridge work is complete.
The Venetian bridge crisis began March 15 when a Miami-Dade Transit bus traveling eastbound on the westernmost part of the drawbridge near Miami got stuck as it drove on the weakened segment.
“A portion of the bridge fell and a hole opened up,” Miami-Dade County Engineer Antonio Cotarelo said at the Tuesday night meeting.
Initially, county officials suspended bus service over the bridge and then vehicle weight restrictions were put in place. Under the restrictions, only vehicles that weigh less than 11 tons can use the roadway. The transit buses that generally travel on the Venetian weigh 15 tons. Albert Hernandez, a transit official, said at the meeting that the county has a six-ton vehicle that could be used. More details will be announced in a few days, he said.
Thousands of people who work in Miami Beach and on the Venetian islands rely on the transit buses to get to work. Others who can’t drive depend on the buses to do their shopping in Miami Beach.
At the Miami Beach Commission meeting Wednesday, Commissioner Joy Malakoff asked that the existing Miami Beach trolley system be extended on an emergency basis to Belle Isle.
“It is the one island on the Venetian islands where there is a real need for citizens who do not drive or can’t drive to come to Miami Beach to do their shopping, or to go to their doctor,” she said.
City Manager Jimmy Morales said he will look into that possibility, but noted that Miami-Dade Transit had begun some limited service to Belle Isle.
After thorough inspection of the bridges, officials said, they determined that the 730-foot-long segment where the bus got stuck needs to be demolished and replaced.
That segment was not renovated when extensive restoration of the Venetian Causeway took place between 1996 and 1999.
Before the restoration work began, debate raged over whether to demolish the original causeway and replace it with a state-of-the-art roadway.
State transportation officials initially planned to raze the old causeway and build a new one, but they ultimately gave in to pressures from Venetian island residents who sought to preserve the look of the original roadway.
The federal government designated the causeway as a national treasure, listing it in the National Register of Historic Places.
The designation quashed plans to demolish the causeway, including the 12 bridges that link residential islands to the mainland and Miami Beach.
Instead of demolition, state road engineers settled on restoration and renovation.
Miami Herald staff writers Patricia Mazzei and Christina Veiga contributed to this report.