The little bridge over the Coral Gables Waterway at Cocoplum Circle, a critical roadway link for thousands of suburban and Miami residents and commuters, is shot and needs to be replaced, Miami-Dade County engineers say. And pronto.
County public works officials emphasize there is no immediate peril, but they’re nonetheless moving quickly on what would be a two-year project to replace the nearly 75-year-old bridge, which they say is structurally and functionally deficient.
The potential loss of the bridge connection, even temporarily, is raising fears of a traffic donnybrook among officials and residents in the Gables and in abutting Coconut Grove in the city of Miami. The bridge is the only direct connection from heavily used South LeJeune Road and Ingraham Highway to Cocoplum Circle, itself a major nexus that links those roadways to Old Cutler Road and Sunset Drive.
“It’s a big deal,” said Gables City Manager Cathy Swanson-Rivenbark, who along with elected officials pleaded with the county during a commission meeting last week to speed the pace of work and minimize any interruption of the vital link. “It has to happen. But it has to be a 24-7, push, push, push to get it done. If it’s ‘work, stop, work, stop,’ that’s not going to work.”
The steel-and-concrete bridge sits inside Gables boundaries, but the county has jurisdiction over both the bridge and South LeJeune. And though municipal officials on both sides of the line, which mostly consists of South LeJeune below South Dixie Highway, want a voice in decisions on bridge replacement and traffic management, they say they’re largely at the mercy of the county.
The county says it’s still working out exactly how to go about replacing the bridge and can offer few details. Karla Damian, a public works spokeswoman, said the agency will hire a contractor to design and build a new bridge and is trying to set a start date in coordination with the Gables.
The bridge was built in 1943 to span the gorge of the Gables Waterway, a man-made navigable canal that runs from the Biltmore Hotel to Biscayne Bay and bisects Coral Gables (the canal actually meanders west past the Biltmore and heads back east eventually to the Miami River). The bridge, which carries two lanes of traffic with no shoulders and has just a four-foot sidewalk, is so narrow that a separate bridge for cyclists, runners and pedestrians was built alongside it four years ago.
The new footbridge, which will remain, replaced the old vehicular bridge as the connecting link between two popular multi-use recreational routes — the Commodore Trail, which runs to Cocoplum Circle from the Rickenbacker Causeway, and the Old Cutler Trail, which stretches south to the municipality of Cutler Bay.
The new replacement vehicular bridge will be wider, still with two traffic lanes but expanded to accommodate a six-foot sidewalk and a seven-foot shoulder to improve safety for motorists, cyclists and pedestrians, Damian said. Many faster recreational cyclists still prefer to use the vehicular bridge to avoid collisions with walkers and runners on the footbridge.
Damian said the county will provide plenty of advance notice on a start date and a traffic plan. But she could not say yet whether the bridge would have to be shut down entirely at any point, or whether the project can be done in phases to keep at least one lane of traffic open — an alternative Gables officials have asked the county to explore.
What concerns Gables officials and residents is the possibility that the road connection would be closed for a lengthy period. It’s half a mile to the only other bridge over the waterway in the south Gables, at Hardee Road, and nearly 2.5 miles to South Dixie Highway. That means the project could significantly increase traffic on South LeJeune and adjacent neighborhoods by forcing motorists to take a long detour or cut through residential streets like Hardee, Riviera Drive and Granada Boulevard on the Gables side, now mostly lightly traveled.
Sue Kawalerski, a board member at the Riviera Neighborhood Association, said officials had advised them at a meeting about a year ago that the bridge would need to be replaced, but had few specifics. The group has heard nothing since then, she said.
“It’s going to severely affect traffic patterns through our residential streets,” Kawalerski said. “We would love to know about that project, but there hasn’t been any information.”
No matter what, Gables officials say, residents and commuters can expect some not-insignificant traffic pain.
Both of the contemplated options — shutting down the bridge entirely or maintaining some access throughout the project — have disadvantages, Gables public works director Ed Santamaria said. Doing it in phases, for instance, would likely prolong the completion time, he said.
“The question is whether they’re able to have at least one lane available at a time, or whether it makes more sense to get it done all at once to minimize the pain,” Santamaria said. “I can tell you, the less you have to deal with in terms of maintaining access, the quicker you can get out. So it’s like saying, do you want to take your medicine little by little, or all at once?”
Miami Herald staff writer Lance Dixon contributed to this report.