Metrobus service has been suspended on the Venetian Causeway after a bus opened a hole in a bridge deck, forcing county officials to impose stricter weight restrictions.
“The load restrictions are going to be in place for many years, in all likelihood,” said Miami-Dade County Engineer Antonio Cotarelo.
The hole incident occurred last month, prompting special inspections of bridges on the Venetian, which in turn led to the suspension of bus service late Friday.
So far, emergency services are running as normal, said Miami Beach Fire Rescue Capt. Adonis Garcia. But bus service over the causeway has been suspended since the lightest county bus weighs 15 tons — well over the five-ton and 11-ton restrictions now placed on portions of the bridge.
Bus riders who take Miami-Dade Transit Route A or the South Beach Local are most impacted by the route changes.
Route A, which usually passes over the Venetian to Lincoln Road Mall, has been temporarily suspended. Meanwhile, the Belle Isle stop of the South Beach Local has been relocated, meaning riders will have to cross the bridge on foot to catch the bus at Purdy Avenue and Dade Boulevard.
A spokeswoman for Miami-Dade Transit said the department is looking for smaller, lighter buses to use for trips across the causeway, but no alternatives had been firmed up by early Monday evening.
Tough on workers
On Monday morning, Gloria Fuentes waited at the Omni bus terminal on the Miami side of the causeway. A nanny who lives and works on North Bay Road in Miami Beach, Fuentes makes her way over the bridge to do her grocery shopping and send money back home to Colombia.
Informed of the route restrictions, she gasped: “Don’t tell me that.”
Fuentes figured the service changes will double her commute to two hours. The alternative is a $25 cab ride that eats into the 65-year-old’s paycheck.
Also waiting at the terminal was 78-year old Fred Murtada, who rides the Route A bus regularly.
“Hundreds of people will not be able to get to their jobs,” he said. “It’s not a joke. It’s our transportation.”
Karla Damian, a spokeswoman for the transit system, said weekday boardings on Route A average more than 800.
The trouble with the westernmost portion of the bridge began March 15 when a bus got stuck while heading east.
“Basically, the weight of the bus opened a hole in the deck,” said Cotarelo, the county engineer.
Police shut down the bridge so the county’s public works department, which maintains the bridge, could place a metal plate on the roadway, Cotarelo said. Then a contractor for the Florida Department of Transportation, which inspects the bridge, took a look under the Venetian and identified 10 additional areas of deterioration. In those areas, pieces of concrete covering the road deck had fallen off, exposing metal rebar to the elements, leading to corrosion.
As a result of the inspection, the public works department decided to put in a total of 13 metal plates in the deck to evenly spread the weight of vehicles, according to Cotarelo.
In the next phase of repairs, public works plans to remove part of the roadway asphalt — a process known as milling — and add a rebar “mesh” and three inches of lightweight concrete to strengthen the deck for one to two years. Eventually, the county plans to replace that portion of the bridge, which was built in 1927 or 1928. No funding for that $9 million project has been identified yet, Cotarelo said, but the plan is to replace the section in the next two years.
Tolls from the Venetian and Rickenbacker causeways go toward a fund used for both structures. That fund has been squeezed by at least $31 million in emergency repairs needed for the Bear Cut Bridge, a part of the Rickenbacker between Virginia Key and Key Biscayne.
The historic Venetian Causeway is actually made up of 12 structures that have been repaired multiple times at a cost of tens of millions of dollars.
The county hopes to eventually replace the entire structure — a project that’s estimated to cost $110 million. In 2009, the county completed a $7.1 million repair project to fix support beams, the deck underside and support piers.
Before that, the state repaired beams and decks for all 12 structures and replaced 70 percent of the bridge from the mainland to Biscayne Island, known as the West Venetian Bascule Bridge. That project, completed in 1999, had called for total replacement of the drawbridge — the one currently most affected by the weight restrictions. But residents opposed replacement because it “was not consistent with the historic nature of the existing bridges,” according to a county memo.
Jack Hartog, president of the Venetian Way Neighborhood Alliance, said residents don’t want to see the bridge turned into a major connector like the MacArthur or Julia Tuttle causeways.
“We’ve fought very hard to keep the historic character of those bridges,” he said. “This is a very special road. It’s a pedestrian- and bike-friendly tourist attraction.”
Repair date not set
A date has not been set to begin temporary repairs to the western portion of the bridge.
Those repairs are expected to cost $700,000 and will require a month-long closure, according to a county memo.
Procuring a contract for complete replacement will take eight months, and construction will require up to nine months of closures, according to the memo.
Hartog said homeowners will work with the county to limit as much as possible the impacts of construction.
“We understand that we live on islands, and bridges need repairs so we anticipate closing has to happen periodically. We just want to make sure that they’re doing it efficiently,” he said.
Cotarelo, the county engineer, said the weight restrictions now in effect don’t mean that any and all vehicles over five tons are prohibited from crossing. Heavier vehicles can seek permits to travel the roadway if they can show their weight is spread out in such a way that the bridge will sustain it.