Miami-Dade County’s decision to urgently repair the Bear Cut Bridge joining Virginia Key to Key Biscayne has stirred opposition from people who live on the other side of the bridge, and who say what they really want is a new one.
That would first require a temporary fix to the current one while a new bridge is built. But the county insists that such a short-term mend might not last long enough till the one is finished — putting the only road into and out of Key Biscayne at risk.
Not buying that argument: the Key Biscayne Village Council. At the urging of a vocal resident, the council has asked Miami-Dade to reconsider its repair plan. The county has already put its fix-up project, estimated to cost some $31 million, out to bid; administrators are scheduled to recommend a contractor this month.
The dispute over the future of a deteriorated portion of the bridge has unfolded in pointed memos and tense public meetings. It escalated to the point that Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez recently brought a cadre of administrators to Key Biscayne to defend his repair plan — and his character — only to be rebuffed by council members, who said they don’t trust the county.
“My personal integrity has been attacked because, simply, I disagree on a course of action,” an offended Gimenez told the council. “It doesn’t mean there’s anything malicious.... I don’t work that way.”
The council, however, sided with Gene Stearns, a four-decade Key Biscayne resident and chairman of the law firm Stearns Weaver Miller Weissler Alhadeff & Sitterson who has been leading the opposition to rebuilding the beams and roadway on top of the existing bridge foundations.
Stearns told the council to aggressively question Miami-Dade staff.
“Don’t take their word for it,” he said. “They’re up to something. They want our money.”
At the heart of the dispute are two crucial questions: What is the lifespan of the Bear Cut Bridge’s foundations? And is a temporary Bear Cut Bridge fix feasible?
Miami-Dade shut down part of the Bear Cut Bridge in January due to accelerated corrosion of the exposed steel beams that support the roadway. The county has since reconfigured the lanes to allow more auto traffic — but less room for pedestrians and cyclists — in the lead-up to Monday’s opening of the Sony Open tennis tournament in Key Biscayne.
The county put out an expedited bid process last month to repair the westbound portions of the bridge and of the similarly deteriorated West Bridge, located immediately after the Rickenbacker Causeway toll plaza.
Both bridges were built in 1944 and expanded in the early 1980s. Miami-Dade says the newer, eastbound portions of the bridges are structurally sound. The inspections by the Florida Department of Transportation are exempt from public disclosure under state law, to protect national security.
The county wants to remove the westbound roadway to replace the exposed steel beams with ones encased by concrete to prevent corrosion. The existing pilings supporting the structure would remain, though they would be reinforced. New pilings would be added for pedestrian and cycling lanes.
Miami-Dade expects the repairs to extend the bridges’ life by some 40 years.
The problem: The county doesn’t know the lifespan of the 1944 foundations, because there is no documentation providing details of their construction.
“The life expectancy of the bridges cannot be determined at this time, as the actual construction of the foundations is unknown,” says a report by TranSystems, a consultant the county hired to review the extent of the bridge damage.
To Stearns and other critics, including County Commissioner Juan C. Zapata, who requested the report, that assessment raised alarms.
“If it’s unknown, why don’t we just wait ’til we know?” Zapata said. “We know more about the atmosphere in Mars than what’s in the substructure of that bridge.”
If the foundations’ lifespan is in doubt, the county should consider temporarily reinforcing the bridge and building an entirely new one, says Stearns, a Sony Open attorney who says he has been campaigning for a new bridge on his own and not on behalf of the tournament. He has created a website, SaveRickenbacker.com.
He’s not the only one questioning the plan. Of the five firms that initially qualified to bid for the project, two of them — Condotte America and the de Moya Group — dropped out. That’s not unusual.
But in an email obtained by The Miami Herald, Andres G. Mendoza, Condotte’s executive vice president, told colleagues that “satisfying the requirements of the project proved to be difficult.”
The bid parameters and county staffers’ answers to questions about the project “were too risky to jeopardize the reputation of my company,” he wrote. “Should the County issue a modified and reasonable criteria package, I would not hesitate in teaming with you all once again.” Mendoza did not respond to Herald requests for comment.
Two other engineers from firms associated with the bids — who spoke to The Herald on condition of anonymity because participants are banned by county rules from discussing bid details before they are made public — said they too have misgivings.
One called the county’s 300-day repair schedule “impractical and impossible” and the proposed fix “poorly thought out.” The other called it “a horrible project for the county.”
Gimenez has dismissed complaints from critics who decline to be identified, noting that county engineers and their consultant have signed their names to their reports.
Of the three firms still in the running for the project — GLF Construction, Kiewit Infrastructure and Munilla Construction Management — one also questioned the county’s proposed schedule for the project.
GLF Construction wrote in its technical bid that while the timeframe would work for the bridge repairs, expanding the bridge for cyclists and pedestrians may take longer because it requires new pilings and lanes that may not qualify for emergency permits.
“[B]ased on our extensive knowledge of the regulatory process, environmental permits and the scope of the additional work, the widening portions of the project cannot be designed, permitted and constructed within the 300 calendar days,” the bid says.
Stearns, for his part, wants the county to bolt steel plates to the bridge’s corroded beams — a fix referred to as bracing — to reinforce the structure and give Miami-Dade time to build a new one. According to the county, a new bridge could take seven to 10 years to complete.
Under regular circumstances, the report from Miami-Dade’s consultant said, bracing could cost $7.8 million and last 15 to 20 years, but that estimate came with serious caveats. The bracing would address only severely damaged locations of the bridge, leaving the rest of the structure to continue to deteriorate, causing new problems in “as little as five years” — likely before a new bridge could be completed.
As for the $7.8 million, that estimate does not take into account accelerated scheduling to fix the bridge on an emergency basis, which could add up to 50 percent to the project, increasing the total cost to more than $10 million.
Furthermore, the report says, bracing the bridge would be particularly challenging because the ends of the beams are so severely corroded in some cases that it would be difficult to bolt the reinforcing steel plates.
Marcos Redondo, an engineer with the county’s public works and waste management department, told Key Biscayne the mend is “not feasible.”
“We’re not making this up,” he said. “A lot of things are being said to give you the impression that this ‘quick fix’ is a very easy thing. But it’s not.”
An entirely new bridge similar to the existing one would cost upwards of $100 million, the county says. The consultant’s report estimates a price tag of $59 million, but in a memo to Zapata, Gimenez wrote that studies, insurance and other costs would increase the costs by about $40 million. That could require hiking causeway tolls, which the county already plans to raise to $1.75 from $1.50 to finance the current bridge repairs.
Gimenez said he has no plans to ask county commissioners to take up the Key Biscayne resolution asking Miami-Dade to put out new bids for Stearns’ proposed temporary fix. The commission could bring up the measure on its own.
And, Gimenez has repeatedly said, nothing precludes the county from building an entirely new bridge after completing the repairs.
“I want to assure the safety of the people traveling on that bridge,” Gimenez said. “We need to repair this bridge. We need to do it. I think that is the prudent way to go, and all my engineers agree with me.”