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Engineers: South Florida bridges rated ‘deficient’ remain safe to use

Of the hundreds of bridges both big and small in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, only a handful are rated as “structurally deficient” — and engineers say none is in danger of collapsing or being shut down.

But the cost of maintaining, repairing and replacing aging local bridges over the next decade and a half will easily mount into many hundreds of millions of dollars at a time when the state, county and local government agencies responsible for their upkeep face the prospect of tight or shrinking capital funding.

Piecing together the money for even the most crucial repairs is already a constant scramble, highway and public-works engineers say. Their agencies often make millions of dollars worth of repairs to old and obsolete bridges to eke out several more years of use from them, pushing the dreaded date of even costlier full replacement into an uncertain future.

The good news, they say, is that regular bridge inspections carried out by the Florida Department of Transportation mean government engineers have a good handle on maintenance and repair needs, and that surprises like the Rickenbacker Causeway’s Bear Cut Bridge, which had to be partly closed last month after an analysis found unusually rapid structural deterioration, are likely to remain infrequent.

“We’re very proactive to make sure our investment in infrastructure is maintained,” said Gus Pego, FDOT district secretary in Miami.

Still, some of the already-known needs are daunting.

For instance, Miami-Dade public works engineers say they expect to have to replace all 12 bridges, including two drawbridges, on the historic Venetian Causeway, built in the 1920s. The rough cost projection is $110 million, although they are about to embark on a study with FDOT to determine the precise scope and timing of work. Most of the cost, they hope, will be covered by federal grant money.

And that’s after the county spent about $9 million in 2011 to repair spalling and reinforce the concrete pilings supporting some of the Venetian’s bridges.

Dade: $450 million

Miami-Dade, which owns and maintains 206 bridges, roughly projects the cost of rehabilitating or replacing them over the next 10 to 20 years at more than $450 million, though the its engineers caution that the estimate also includes a “wish list” of noncritical work.

Those figures, which include the Venetian, encompass only a portion of the bridges across the county, many of which are owned and maintained by FDOT or municipalities.

Aside from the westbound half of the Bear Cut Bridge, 10 bridges in Miami-Dade are rated by FDOT as structurally deficient, a label that covers a range of issues, including structural deterioration but also some purely functional elements like narrow lanes or inadequate sidewalks.

Bridges on the list include the Miami River drawbridges at Southwest First Street and at Miami Avenue, and the Broad Causeway bridge at that road’s eastern end.

13 Broward spans

In Broward, 13 bridges have the same rating, including the Sunrise Boulevard bridge over the Middle River in Fort Lauderdale.

The details that earn the structurally deficient classification are unavailable because, to protect security, inspection reports are exempt from review under the state’s public-records law.

Each bridge receives a “sufficiency rating” that specifies its overall condition. A sufficiency rating below a certain level means a bridge must be repaired within six years or, in the case of bridges determined to be dangerous, shut down or weight-restricted. None of the Miami-Dade or Broward bridges besides Bear Cut scores at those lowest levels.

According to FDOT’s Broward district office, bridges receive a “structurally deficient” rating when one or more major features score below 4 on a scale of 1 to 9. A bridge with a rating of 4 is considered “poor,” and becomes eligible for funds to replace it, John Danielsen of FDOT’s Broward district office wrote in an email.

The principal sources of repair financing are state and federal transportation grants as well as municipal road funds, much of that generated by gasoline taxes, though some local governments also issue bonds, take out bank loans or tap into road impact fees paid by developers.

Yet highway and public works officials say the economic downturn led to tightened maintenance budgets and reduced gas-tax receipts as people drove less. FDOT’s Pego and other officials warn that rising efficiency standards for automobiles, as well as decisions by more people to drive less because of high gas prices, could lead to a permanent drop in fuel-tax revenue in the near future.

The tax is set at 52.4 cents per gallon, so revenue doesn’t rise along with gas prices.

That leaves public works officials guessing about how much money will be available for major repairs or bridge replacements in coming years.

“It is a fairly tight situation now, especially with the economy having gone downhill,” said Miami-Dade’s acting chief engineer, Antonio Cotarelo. “We really don’t know where this is going. Some of the most important repairs, we try to anticipate and prioritize.”

Some of the major bridges rated as structurally deficient are already scheduled and funded for repair work, including Bear Cut. The Miami-Dade County Commission voted last month to increase Rickenbacker Causeway tolls by 25 cents to $1.75 to fund a $31 million reconstruction and widening of Bear Cut Bridge.

Broad Causeway

The town of Bay Harbor Islands, which owns and operates the Broad Causeway, took out a $10 million loan for extensive work on the long eastern bridge, which has a drawbridge in the middle. Bay Harbor has been planning the project, which also includes some minor work on three other causeway bridges, for three years, said Town Manager Ron Wasson. The drawbridge span will be replaced along with the bridge tender’s house, and structural supports will be shored up and covered with a protective coating, among other work, Wasson said.

The 62-year-old bridge is also considered functionally obsolete because some elements don’t meet current standards, including lanes that are too narrow and lack a median barrier, and sidewalks that are unprotected from motorized traffic by barriers. Those cannot be fully brought up to modern standards without rebuilding the bridge, but the repair project will add at least 20 years to its lifespan.

“The good thing is, the bridge is a very well-designed bridge,” Wasson said. “Keeping it updated is something we spend a decent amount of money on.”

FDOT plans to entirely replace several South Florida bridges under its jurisdiction, including two in Broward as well as the Southwest First Street drawbridge over the Miami River. The substructure of the 1929 Miami bridge is rated as poor.

FDOT plans to replace the drawbridge in 2018 — an $82 million project that could last two years. The result will be a higher bridge to give more clearance for boats, said Dennis Fernandez, FDOT’s local structures maintenance administrator.

“We’re going to have a brand-new bridge,” he said.

In the meantime, the agency plans to begin repairs in August to shore up support on one of the bridge’s two piers. That work is expected to be finished by December.

No ‘emergency’

“There’s no immediate need to declare an emergency or anything like that,” Fernandez said.

In Broward, FDOT will replace the Sunrise Boulevard bridge, which temporarily had the steel beneath its deck reinforced, starting in September. In 2016, the agency plans to replace the 1949 bridge at Broward Boulevard over the North Fork of the New River because its substructure — the piers or foundations holding up the structure — are too deteriorated.

The town of Davie, meanwhile, is now replacing the Southwest 45th Street (Orange Drive) bridge over the N-17 canal, a job to be completed in June.

Miami-Dade has slated some major work on a couple of bridges, including the Miami Avenue drawbridge over the river. The 1985 bridge needs a new metal surface deck and some minor mechanical and electrical work. The $5 million cost will be covered mostly by 2004 voter-approved, general-obligation bonds that earmarked several aging bridges.

Swing Bridge

The county is also replacing the quaint but obsolete Tamiami swing bridge farther up the river with a $32 million bascule-style drawbridge, with half the cost to be covered by the general obligation bonds and half by FDOT. The historic swing bridge will be moved to a nearby city park.

But the county has yet to identify funding for replacement of the structurally deficient Pine Tree Drive bridge over the Flamingo Waterway in Miami Beach, estimated at $10 million. Until then, public works will extend its life by doing repairs, including a $940,000 job this summer to replace the bridge’s deteriorated center span.

At some point, though, as happened with Bear Cut, engineers will decide that patchwork will no longer do.

“It gets to the point where the repair work is not feasible anymore,” Cotarelo said.