Gary Goldstein usually walks his golden doodle Cobi over the historic Venetian Causeway in the mornings.
The 69-year-old and his dog walk down from their condo in Venetia, the tower at the west end of the causeway, and enjoy the picturesque view of Biscayne Bay.
Monday morning's vista was gorgeous, as usual, but the bridge was empty. It is closed for a nine-month construction project that will see the western drawbridge, currently patched with metal plates in its weakest spots, get completely rebuilt.
Folks like Goldstein, along with commuters, we rerouted Monday morning.
"We just went to the park around the corner," he said.
The bridge officially closed to all traffic at midnight Monday. Several cars, dog-walkers, runners, bicyclists were turned around at the Miami entrance to the Venetian Causeway during rush hour. Construction crews, orange cones and large road closure signs blocked commuters from getting onto the bridge.
Some drivers were visibly frustrated as they made U-turns in front of Venetia because they were trying to get to work. A few stray bicyclists, runners and a rollerblader did quickly get across without anyone noticing.
The contractor, GLF Construction, has a two-week noise waiver from the city of Miami to work around the clock in order to expedite the disruptive project. The City Commisson is expected to consider extending that waiver at a June 11 public hearing.
Goldstein said he wouldn't mind construction work outside his building late at night as long as the work gets done faster.
"I'd be all right with that," he said.
The westernmost stretch of the 90-year-old structure — specifically, 730 feet of weakened bridge closest to Miami currently patched by metal plates — will be closed and replaced during the $12.4 million project that will seal off direct access from the mainland to the Venetian Islands and Miami Beach.
Even if all agree the ailing bridge badly needed to get fixed long ago, it’s an inconvenience dreaded by all kinds of commuters. Bicyclists and runners favor this route across Biscayne Bay because it’s safer. Cyclists, in particular, will be rerouted to the scarier MacArthur and Julia Tuttle causeways. And the nine-month timeline includes marquee events — like Art Basel and the Miami Marathon — for the county that require accessibility between Miami and Miami Beach.
Miami-based GLF Construction says it could finish the job faster and get the bridge reopened by Dec. 1 for an extra $4.7 million and permission to work some nights. Two other scenarios have the work done by Jan. 1 or Feb. 1. But county officials say they don’t want to spend the money.
Miami-Dade Deputy Mayor Alina Hudak told the Miami Herald the county wants to pursue ways to expedite the work within the existing contract, like securing noise permit waivers from the city of Miami to work longer hours. She didn’t think the quicker construction timelines were the best bang for the county’s buck.
“To gain a month and a half with no guarantee that it would happen? Would you do that as a businessperson?” she asked rhetorically.
Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine considers the project an emergency and thinks the county should get the construction done as soon as possible. “It would not only to allow them to get it done by Thanksgiving, but it would allow Art Basel to not be affected and to significantly reduce the inconvenience for residents,” he said.
The “emergency” theme is a common one for Levine and the Beach, who has deemed sea-level rise enough of an emergency to quickly award contracts and complete drainage projects as part of a five-year plan to safeguard the city from rising tides. The first-time mayor often likes to say “Just get it done” — a mantra that he’s even had printed on to his personal stationary and coasters.
Levine wants the Venetian bridge work done before Art Basel on the county’s dime because it’s not a city road.
“We wouldn’t put up money for this,” he said. “We don’t own the bridge. We don’t maintain the the bridge.”
To expedite the job, Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado said the city of Miami has given the contractor a provisional noise waiver to work around the clock until June 11, when the Miami City Commission will consider extending it at a public hearing.
He said he was unaware of the estimated costs for the accelerated schedule, but that it is ultimately up to the county.
“At the end of the day, the full responsibility is on the county,” he said. “To go through the Venetian, you have to pay a toll to the county, and the residents pay a lot of taxes to the county.”
Built in 1927, the Venetian Causeway is considered both a local and federal historic landmark. In 1989, the federal government listed the causeway on the National Register of Historic Place.
Years of use have taken its toll, though, and the westernmost drawbridge needed to be replaced in the late 1990s. The historic significance of the bridge sparked an intense debate over whether it should be just be rehabilitated or completely demolished and rebuilt. Residents favoring restoration and renovation won.
Fast-forward to March 2014, when a Miami-Dade Transit bus got stuck after a piece of the bridge deck fell through and opened a hole in the road. No one was hurt, but the hole pointed to bigger problems that led the county to put down several large metal plates over the bridge’s weakest points and tighten weight restrictions.
It was clear the bridge needed to be closed and redone. Although county officials initially estimated work would begin last August or September, procurement process delays slowed it down, with the $12.4-million contract not awarded until April.
“Due to the nature of this project — it was an emergency project, as opposed to a planned project — no funding was immediately available,” said Francisco Calderon, spokesperson for the Miami-Dade public works department. “As a result, we had to go through a transparent, orderly process to identify proper funding. That process took some time to complete.”
The money’s coming from the Building Better Communities bond program, which has helped fund neighborhood and regional projects through a $2.93 billion borrowing plan that voters approved in 2004.
GLF Construction provided three scenarios that include a seven-day workweek, with expanded hours at night and higher price tags.
▪ Reopening on Dec. 1: $4.7 million
▪ Reopening on Jan. 1: $3.1 million
▪ Reopening on Feb. 1: $1.5 million
Whether it be seven, eight or nine months, cyclists and runners will lose a favorite route across the bay.
Frankie Ruiz, co-founder of the Miami Marathon, said events like Art Basel and the marathon will suffer with one fewer route across Biscayne Bay. He thinks the extra costs are worth it.
“I know that sounds like a big-ticket item, but when you got the Miami Marathon that generates more than $55 million in economic impact, you’re not wrong to spend 3 to 4 million to make it quicker,” he said, citing a recent study by the Sport Industry Research Center at Temple University. “You’re neglecting the sheer fact that we are a tourism-based community.”
Bicyclists will have to brave the MacArthur or Julia Tuttle causeways, which riders feel will lead to more accidents.
“They’re suggesting that people be rerouted to the MacArthur, which is frankly too dangerous for cyclists, and the Tuttle, which is deadly,” said Eli Stiers, a local attorney and cycling advocate.
In April, a bicyclist died on the Julia Tuttle after he was knocked off the bridge by a driver. The death remains fresh in the minds of local bicyclists as they call for better bike lanes along both causeways in the wake of the Venetian closure.
Hudak said the county is working with the Florida Department of Transportation, which manages the two causeways, to make bike lanes safer.
“These are not our highways, but we want to make sure we do everything we can possibly do,” Hudak said. “We’re looking right now at maybe some kind of striping or some type of vibratory lining.”
Still, riders like Stiers would prefer to see wider lanes with some kind of physical barrier. The added safety wouldn’t just help the most fervent cycling enthusiasts.
“I’m not just talking about people who put on spandex and ride,” he said. “I’m talking about bike commuters, people who rely on the Venetian to bike to work.”