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One westbound lane reopens, with restrictions, on Key Biscayne’s Bear Cut Bridge

To alleviate traffic congestion, Miami-Dade County has reopened one of the closed westbound lanes on the bridge connecting Key Biscayne and Virginia Key.

Only cars and motorcycles will be allowed to use the inner westbound lane on the Bear Cut Bridge. Trucks must continue to leave Key Biscayne on the makeshift outbound lane on the southern side of the bridge. Cyclists will still be able to ride on the other westbound lane that remains closed.

Late last Thursday the county’s public works department converted one of the bridge’s two eastbound lanes, heading into Key Biscayne, into an outbound lane, after shutting down the two westbound lanes. They were reacting to state inspectors’ concerns about the weight of heavy vehicles traveling over corroded steel beams holding up half the bridge.

“We were looking for a second lane out of here,” Key Biscayne Village Manager John C. Gilbert said Wednesday, after meeting with county administrators and agreeing that reopening one westbound lane, with some restrictions, would ease traffic. The lane was reopened at around 1 p.m. Wednesday, according to the county.

“It is safe,” said Christopher Rose, a county assistant public works director. “The [bridge] load ratings are appropriate for cars and motorcycles only.”

Following an inspection last June, the Florida Department of Transportation recommended restricting truck traffic on the westbound lanes, which are supported by steel beams, or girders, built in 1944 and exposed to saltwater.

The county imposed vehicle weight restrictions in late December, but they proved unworkable; businesses on Key Biscayne had trouble receiving deliveries.

Last week, the county did away with the weight restrictions and shut down the westbound lanes entirely, redirecting all vehicular traffic — including trucks — onto the two eastbound lanes converted into opposing one-way lanes.

The eastbound lanes were built in 1983 on concrete-encased steel beams that are structurally sound. The county plans to use those same type of beams when it repairs the other half of the bridge — which could take a year.

The sudden closures caused some heartburn for drivers and cyclists. Gilbert said his commute is 10 to 15 minutes longer each way — more when there’s an accident. So far, the village hasn’t had problems with emergency vehicles getting stuck on the bridge, he added.

Gilbert said reopening a westbound lane to some traffic will give the county and village a better idea of potential congestion during the popular Sony Open tennis tournament, which will be held at the Crandon Park Tennis Center during two weeks in March.

“Everybody knew that this was something that we needed to take a look at now,” he said.

Gilbert said the county and village plan to continue making tweaks, including straightening and striping the sharp S-turn that vehicles have to make to get onto the eastbound bridge lane from Virginia Key. A county representative has committed to attending Village Council meetings, held every other week, to answer questions, Gilbert said.

With the eastbound bike lane transformed into an auto lane, cyclists have been asked to ride into Key Biscayne on a walled-off pathway also used by pedestrians and joggers. But some cyclists are continuing to ride with vehicles because they don’t consider it safe to share the pathway with slow-moving pedestrians.

“You have the concern that you’re going to run into a jogger or other slow cyclists, so then you have to get out of the intensity that you have,” said Juan Hernandez, a construction management consultant who rides the bridge almost daily.

Leaving Key Biscayne, cyclists will be separated from westbound auto traffic by orange plastic delineators — like those on the Interstate 95 express lanes — that had been set up for the short-lived truck restrictions.