Concerned about traffic congestion for the upcoming Sony Open tennis tournament, Miami-Dade County plans to open a fourth lane for vehicles on the bridge to Key Biscayne — by doing away with a walled-off pathway for pedestrians and joggers.
Pedestrians, joggers and cyclists, who have been asked to ride on the protected sidewalk ever since the county shut down part of the Bear Cut Bridge due to structural problems, will be forced to share the bridge’s northernmost lane, which remains closed to vehicles. The reconfiguration of the bridge, which connects Virginia Key to Key Biscayne, is expected to begin within two weeks.
The less-than-ideal scenario could eventually result in enough trouble for pedestrians and cyclists that the county may consider closing the bridge to those travelers altogether, public works administrators acknowledged. That would effectively restrict access to Crandon Park, until the bridge is repaired, for anyone who is not driving a car.
“We have to find a solution that works for the majority of the people,” Mayor Carlos Gimenez told The Miami Herald on Wednesday.
The decision to eliminate the pedestrian pathway comes after days of meetings between Gimenez’s brass, public works engineers and Florida Department of Transportation officials. The county had been urged by tennis tournament organizers and some on Key Biscayne to find an alternative to existing traffic restrictions on the bridge. Tournament organizers could not be reached for comment late Wednesday.
Miami-Dade shut down the bridge’s two westbound lanes earlier this month, after state and county inspectors found that steel beams holding up that portion of the roadway were too corroded to support heavy vehicles. The county later reopened one of the lanes to cars and motorcycles only, with trucks limited to traveling on an eastbound lane converted to westbound, heading out of Key Biscayne. A second eastbound lane into the island remains open to all traffic.
But even with three lanes available to cars, Gimenez said, Sony Open organizers told him Monday they were worried that buses shuttling players from hotels on the mainland and tournament fans from Virginia Key parking lots would clog the single lane into Key Biscayne — and hurt the tournament, which takes place in March. An engineer hired by the tournament suggested an alternative plan to open the bridge’s four lanes by bolting steel plates to the bridge’s exposed beams, reinforcing the westbound lanes to support heavy vehicles.
“That would be good enough for maybe two years, maybe three years, but then we’d have to do it over again,” Gimenez said. “My engineers weren’t crazy about that idea.”
That led to the county plan to get rid of the eight-foot-wide pedestrian path. County workers will remove the barrier wall that separates it from the car lanes, pave over that portion of the asphalt and re-stripe the pavement to create three lanes that meet the minimum, 11-foot width requirement, Interim County Engineer Antonio Cotarelo said.
The public works department also considered other alternatives, including restricting truck traffic twice a day during the tennis tournament. But that would have required temporary traffic barricades that would have to be moved twice a day, confusing drivers, Cotarelo said.
Under the planned reconfiguration, pedestrians and cyclists heading toward Key Biscayne would have to stop and cross three lanes of traffic on Virginia Key at a light in front of the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.
“We would have to figure out if there’s any impact, and how bad it is with traffic, and take whatever necessary action to adjust it or close it if necessary — meaning closing the bridge to all pedestrians and cyclists,” Cotarelo said. “It is a possibility.”
Cyclists have already had to adapt to the partial lane shutdown, sharing the protected sidewalk with slow-moving pedestrians or choosing to ride with cars on eastbound auto lanes. Some cyclists have reported crashes on the westbound bike lane, due in part to unfamiliar signage and an inconsistent lane width. Now, cyclists will have to make room on that lane for bikes riding to and from Key Biscayne, and for people on foot.
Miami-Dade does not intend to replace the entire portion under the westbound lanes of the bridge — only the corroded beams, or girders, which were built in 1944 and exposed to saltwater, and the asphalt deck that lies on top of them. The bridge’s foundations appear structurally sound.
The girders will be replaced with the same concrete-encased beams supporting the eastbound lanes of the bridge, which were built in 1983. That portion of the bridge can handle the load of an extra auto traffic lane, Cotarelo said.
The repairs, which would not begin until after the tennis tournament, are expected to cost $25 million. To finance the project, the county plans to issue bonds backed by the Rickenbacker Causeway tolls, which would have to be raised to $1.75 from $1.50 for cars. Some county commissioners balked at that idea at a transportation committee meeting Monday, saying they would not support a toll hike unless the county fast-tracks its plans to use SunPass — instead of C-Pass— tolls at the causeway.
Once repairs begin, the project could last nine months with round-the-clock work, according to the county. But it could take longer if the county insists on having four lanes open throughout the repairs, as his administration is considering, Gimenez said.
As part of the repairs, Miami-Dade will widen the bridge’s westbound lanes by at least 12 feet — allowing the county to create a protected sidewalk, which does not currently exist. During the repairs, that extra space could allow one westbound lane open at all times, if the contractor is able to fix one of the lanes completely before moving on to the second one.
Gimenez said that requirement could extend the repairs by a couple of months.