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Miami-Dade to shut westbound lanes on Bear Cut Bridge from Key Biscayne

In an emergency move, Miami-Dade will shut down the westbound lanes of the bridge that connects Key Biscayne to Virginia Key, after the state and county found “structural deficiencies” with the decades-old bridge.

Effective Friday morning, the two eastbound lanes of Bear Cut Bridge will be turned into one lane heading toward Key Biscayne and the other lane toward the mainland, the county announced late Thursday after state inspectors raised red flags about the weight of heavy vehicles crossing the structure.

The two westbound lanes will close while the county evaluates and fixes corroded steel beams — a process that could take up to a year, county spokesman Fernando Figueredo said, though he stressed it’s too early to provide a solid timeframe.

The popular Sony Open tennis tournament takes place at the Crandon Park Tennis Center during two weeks in March. Figueredo said the county, in conjunction with the Village of Key Biscayne, is brainstorming about how to alleviate the additional traffic congestion that will be caused by the lane closures during the tournament.

The urgent decision to shut down a portion of the bridge was prompted by recent inspection reports by the Florida Department of Transportation and the county, according to a memo Mayor Carlos Gimenez sent county commissioners late Thursday.

The memo did not provide inspection reports or details of the structural shortcomings, other than to say the problems lie with the Bear Cut Bridge and the West Bridge, located immediately after the Rickenbacker Causeway toll plaza.

“These measures are proactive steps to reduce further deterioration of the bridge in the interest of public safety and are being implemented in consultation with the Village of Key Biscayne,” Gimenez wrote.

Reached late Thursday, Dennis Fernandez, the structures maintenance administrator for FDOT’s Miami district office, said the state agency had recommended that the county impose weight restrictions on heavy vehicles traveling westbound on the bridge.

“The westbound bridge has some capacity left, but not enough to carry the garbage trucks and the emergency vehicles and fuel tankers,” he said.

Key Biscayne issued several vehicle weight restriction alerts via email beginning Dec. 18, including notifying commercial truck drivers on Wednesday that they would be required to obtain county permits to travel on the bridge.

On Thursday, the county decided to allow all vehicles to travel on the bridge — but only on the eastbound lanes.

Key Biscayne Mayor Frank Caplan could not be reached for comment late Thursday.

The problem centers around the bridge’s steel beams, or girders, which have corroded, Fernandez said. The beams support the surface of the bridge where vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians travel.

Previous FDOT inspections had identified the problem, according to Fernandez, who said the issue is limited to the westbound side of the bridge because the eastbound side was more recently renovated. “This is nothing new,” he said.

Because of its problems, FDOT inspects the Bear Cut Bridge more frequently than every two years, as is typical under normal conditions.

The latest FDOT quarterly inspection records, released Wednesday, show Bear Cut Bridge was inspected Dec. 26 and found to be “structurally deficient” — a national rating that indicates the bridge should be replaced or repaired within six years. The bridge has received that rating since at least June 2008, according to Transportation for America, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit that compiles federal bridge inspection data.

The rating does not necessarily mean that the bridge is unsafe or requires closure; according to Transportation for America, nearly 70,000 bridges — about 11.5 percent — across the United States have been deemed “structurally deficient.”

The latest FDOT records do show a significant drop in the Bear Cut Bridge’s “sufficiency rating,” which considers several factors to determine whether a bridge should be repaired or replaced. That rating dropped to 21 from 66 in its previous inspection, on June 27.

The federal government stepped up bridge inspections after the deadly collapse of a 40-year-old Minneapolis bridge in 2007 put a spotlight on the nation’s aging infrastructure. The Bear Cut Bridge was originally built in 1944 and reconstructed in 1983, according to FDOT records. An average of 30,804 vehicles cross the bridge every day.

The shutdown will also present problems for the thousands of cyclists who ride to Key Biscayne on weekends, and could lead to increased conflicts between automobiles, pedestrians and cyclists who were largely segregated from one another on the eastbound span.

Most cyclists use a wide, designated on-road bike lane, while pedestrians use a walled-off path on the edge of the bridge. Figueredo said one possibility the county is considering is to reroute eastbound cyclists to share the segregated pathway with pedestrians, and to allow cyclists to use the westbound on-road bike lane.

But some cyclists say bikes can’t mix safely with pedestrians and joggers on the narrow path, and they won’t use it.

“It’s impossible,’” said Howard Srebnick, a criminal defense lawyer who rides to Key Biscayne nearly every day with an early-morning cycling group. “That’s a pedestrian walkway.”

Srebnick said his cycling group will use the eastbound car lane to Key Biscayne because it’s safer.

Cyclist Christophe LeCanne was killed by a hit-and-run driver on the bridge in 2010, while riding in the eastbound bike lane.

Miami Herald staff writers Curtis Morgan and Andres Viglucci contributed to this report.