It will come as no surprise to anyone who has recently had to trudge from Virginia Key to Key Biscayne, but Miami-Dade County has conceded it: There’s no way structural repairs to Bear Cut Bridge will be completed on time.
Emergency work to the deteriorated bridge was supposed to be finished by the end of this month, before the start of the annual Sony Open tennis tournament that attracts throngs of fans to Crandon Park in mid-March.
The county now says most of the construction won’t be done until June. And Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s administration won’t offer an estimate yet as to how much more the project — originally estimated at $31 million — will cost as a result.
The government is negotiating additional fees with contractor Kiewit Infrastructure, Gimenez wrote Wednesday in a memo to county commissioners. The eventual contract change orders will go to commissioners for approval.
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“Everything possible is being explored the keep the project on an expedited track with the least possible financial impact,” Gimenez wrote.
Key Biscayne Mayor Frank Caplan said locals knew the repairs would not be done soon.
“The condition of the bridge is obvious to everyone who passes over it every single day,” he said. “When the tournament hits, I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Gimenez blamed the delays on several factors, including county requests for additional work. One was to examine a few bridge pilings under the sea bed. Another was to install more lighting along the southern portion of the bridge.
Also contributing to the slowdown were unforeseen conditions: finding asbestos in a tube containing electrical wiring for street lights. Discovering old fishing-pier pilings where new pilings were supposed to go. Suspending work due to excessive wind and rain.
The asbestos alone prompted the contractor to claim a 36-day delay in what was already a tight work schedule. The county set aside an additional $750,000 for asbestos removal.
Half of the 1,200-foot bridge has been shut down since January of last year, after inspectors discovered significant corrosion on exposed steel beams supporting the road. Both the beams and road deck had to be replaced.
They found similar damage under the small West Bridge immediately after the Rickenbacker Causeway toll plaza. The northern spans of both bridges were built in 1944.
The southern spans, built in the 1980s, are structurally sound, according to the county — though the ongoing repairs included shoring up pilings under the newer spans of both bridges.
To pay for the work, the county borrowed $34 million, to be repaid with an increase in causeway tolls, which were hiked to $1.75 from $1.50 for most vehicles. The water and sewer department paid for $3 million to move a water main from under the roadway.
Commissioners signed off on the rehabilitation project in April and construction work began in June — despite detractors’ contention that cheaper bracing would have been sufficient, saving funds for Miami-Dade to build an entirely new bridge sooner rather than later.
Opponents succeeded in compelling the county to take a closer look at the bridge foundations. The study concluded the bridge has a shorter lifespan than expected, 20 to 30 years instead of 40 to 50 years.
That finding will force the county to plan for a new bridge after the current fixes are done. The public works and waste management department, which oversees bridges, says it would take up to $100 million and 10 years to plan and build a new structure. Critics counter those numbers are too high.
The most immediate concern is next month’s Sony Open, which begins March 17 and lasts for two weeks. Fans and residents already had to deal with traffic jams last year to reach the Crandon Park Tennis Center; tournament attendance was down, though organizers attributed some of that to top-seeded players declining to participate.
Organizers declined to comment, saying through a spokesman that they have yet to meet with the county to discuss the latest plans.
Antonio Cotarelo, the county engineer, said the bridge should be in better shape than it was last year to handle the crowds.
During the tournament, the contractor will be prohibited from closing some lanes between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m., as it has been doing now. Work will continue six days a week.
Before the tournament, the county plans to change the traffic pattern, opening two auto lanes and a pathway for pedestrians and cyclists, both on the repaired side. That means two eastbound lanes toward Key Biscayne will be physically separated from two westbound lanes toward Virginia Key by a wide, closed-off median being used as a construction area.
“We’re going to have opposing traffic separated completely,” Cotarelo said.
The pathway along the bridge’s northern edge will be set apart from the westbound auto lanes by a wall — a condition cyclists have criticized in the past, since they prefer to ride on the roadway away from walkers and joggers.
At 14 feet, the pathway will be wider than the old, 8-foot pathway along the bridge’s southern edge.