Under Monday’s sunny noon sky, Chaunce O’Connor propelled himself forward in his wheelchair, one of several dozen who inaugurated the new west bridge of the Venetian Causeway with a trip across the totally rebuilt structure.
“The most important thing about this is this route is extremely scenic and safer,” O’Connor said against the backdrop of a gorgeous Biscayne Bay vista, as a small American flag attached to his chair flapped in the salty breeze.
After a ceremonial ribbon cutting just before noon, dozens of bicyclists and pedestrians crossed the new span. By about 1 p.m., the Venetian Causeway was open to all traffic again for the first time since June 2015, when the county closed the connection between Miami and Miami Beach for a nine-month, $12.4 million project completely replacing the dilapidated west bridge.
The new bridge looks like the old one, minus the big metal plates that patched the old bridge deck’s weakest spots. About 730 feet of west bridges were demolished and rebuilt the past nine months, detouring traffic to the MacArthur and Julia Tuttle causeways. County officials maintained the scale and look of the fabled roadway, which is on the National Register of Historic Places and has local historic protections.
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Chunks from the old bridge were submerged to create an artificial reef, according to the county. This new bridge, county officials say, should last about 60 years.
“It’s beautiful, in keeping with the historic designation,” Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said at a ribbon-cutting ceremony Monday morning. “Making things beautiful may take a little bit more money on the front end, but you’re going to get 60 years worth of the aesthetic beauty of this bridge.”
The project finished on time and on budget, according to the county.
Fixing the west bridge was the county’s responsibility, but the remainder of the causeway also needs help. The Florida Department of Transportation oversees the other 11 bridges, and the state agency is looking at the extent of the upgrades needed for the 90-year-old route across the bay.
A three-year study is underway to answer those questions, and it should be done by 2017. But on Monday, dozens of local officials and commuters at the reopening breathed a sigh of relief as Miami got back a crucial link to Miami Beach.
Frankie Ruiz, co-founder of the Miami Marathon, peered east across the bridge toward the Venetian Islands and smiled as he thought about how runners will again race across the causeway. This year, marathoners ran across the MacArthur.
He said he’s already planning to run next year’s marathon across the Venetian, but is happy there are other routes that can also work. “It’s good to know we have a good alternate route,” he said.
Cyclists, runners and drivers were quick take advantage of the reopened causeway as soon as police fully opened the road about 1 p.m.
Uber driver Vance Phillips was among the first to head west from the islands to Miami, bringing a family on vacation from Canada to the mainland.
“I was very happy to see it open up again,” he said after crossing the new bridge. “We got to take people to and from places, so this is great.”
Rush-hour drivers will see a influx of cyclists on the causeway about 6 p.m. Monday, when a few hundred are expected to hold an “opening ride” over and back from Miami Beach to celebrate.