Miami Beach

Rough road ahead: All 12 Venetian bridges facing a redo debate

The westernmost stretch of the 90-year-old structure closed last week for a nine-month, $12.4 million project that will seal off direct access from the mainland to the Venetian Islands and Miami Beach.
The westernmost stretch of the 90-year-old structure closed last week for a nine-month, $12.4 million project that will seal off direct access from the mainland to the Venetian Islands and Miami Beach. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

The historic Venetian Causeway is in a bad way.

The nine-month closure of the Venetian's westernmost bridge span last week for emergency replacement is only the start of what will be a painfully long, expensive and complex project to revamp or replace all 12 bridges along the picturesque, nearly 90-year-old roadway, which connects the six residential Venetian Islands and the cities of Miami and Miami Beach.

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Venetian Way

The Florida Department of Transportation is now one year into a three-year, $2.8 million study to determine how best to address extensive bridge issues that include cracking concrete piers, corroding steel and sagging support beams. Just 15 years after the last comprehensive rehab was completed, all 12 bridges score poorly on an engineering sufficiency scale, and all but one are classified as functionally obsolete — ratings that usually mean it’s time to replace them.

The FDOT study, which won’t be done until 2017, is looking at alternatives that range from rehabbing and strengthening the existing bridges to replacing them entirely. The cost for replacing all 10 fixed bridges and the drawbridge at the eastern end of the Venetian: about $80 million, FDOT says. Funding for the job has not been identified, but the county, which owns the Venetian Way, hopes to tap federal grants.

But exactly what would replace the bridges, should that be the decision, could precipitate heated debate — just as it did the last time the question came up in the 1980s and ’90s.

Any reconstruction would be complicated by the fact that the entire 1926 causeway, the oldest in Florida, is on the National Register of Historic Places and is protected as a historic landmark by the cities of Miami and Miami Beach. Preservationists say they will again push for keeping as much of the original structures in place as possible, the viewpoint that prevailed last time around after an intense campaign.

But engineers say the rapid deterioration of the causeway since then bolsters their position that the preservation option could prove more expensive and disruptive in the long run, requiring extensive refurbishing of bridges as often as every 25 years, in contrast to the expected 60-year to 75-year life span of a new bridge.

But preservationists and Venetian Islands residents who have weighed in on the question overwhelmingly agree on one thing: Whether they are refurbished or rebuilt, the bridges should remain much as they are now: intimate and charming, low in scale and slow in speed, a popular draw for pedestrians, joggers and cyclists, tourists and locals alike, and affording unmatched, close-to-the-water vistas of Biscayne Bay.

That would mean bridges that keep or replicate the existing design elements, down to the geometric cross patterns on the low concrete Venetian railings, they say.

“I would be absolutely shocked if they changed what we have,” said Jack Hartog, president of the Venetian Way Neighborhood Alliance. “Venetian Way is the only real safe place to get from Miami to Miami Beach other than in a car and get those incredible views. It’s a treasure for the community as a whole, not just for the Venetian residents.”

FDOT’s engineers say they’re not only required to consider preserving the historic look and functioning of the causeway, but also must take into account community wishes. But they also say that raises further issues.

The existing drawbridges are too low to escape the predicted surge from a 100-year storm, the study has concluded. As it is, the counterweight on the easternmost drawbridge already dips into the baywater at king-tide time, engineers say.

If they can’t be rebuilt higher, then keeping or replicating the bridges might require incurring additional expense to make them stronger to resist the battering from waves in such a surge. The state engineers also say that being low to the water exposes the fixed bridges in particular to accelerated corrosion and deterioration, potentially shortening their life span.

That’s what they say likely happened after the bridges were last refurbished top-to-bottom in the late 1990s. After preservationists and Venetian residents intervened, plans to replace the old bridges with higher spans was scuttled. Engineers instead went with a comprehensive rehabilitation plan that shored up and largely preserved the original ornate bridges, with minor changes to the guardrails for safety. The western drawbridge was rebuilt and raised, but the look and feel of the original was replicated.

Engineers estimated a service life of 20 years. Just six years later, however, routine inspections revealed hundreds of deficiencies ranging from structural cracks and deteriorating concrete to exposed steel reinforcement bars in the bridges. FDOT and county engineers, saying they had expected the problems, instituted a regime of annual inspections, vehicle weight restrictions, and near-constant patches and repairs. In 2011, the county spent about $9 million to repair spalling and reinforce the concrete pilings supporting some of the Venetian’s bridges.

But the pace of deterioration didn’t slow. In March 2014, a Miami-Dade Transit bus got stuck in a hole on the westernmost span of the causeway after a chunk of the bridge deck fell through. That 730-foot span, the approach to the drawbridge, had been partially refurbished but not rebuilt when the bascule — the part that goes up and down — was replaced in 1999.

The county put down several big steel plates to cover weak points on the span while it planned its reconstruction. Now, as a precaution to avoid a repeat on the opposite end, the Miami-Dade public works department has also put steel plates to cover weak spots on the deck of the span connecting Miami Beach’s Purdy Avenue to the eastern drawbridge. That eastern span should last until a decision is made whether to replace or revamp it, said Gaspar Miranda, assistant of highway engineering for the agency.

The drawbridges have other issues. The open steel grid decks are slippery and a hazard for the hundreds of cyclists who cross them every day. The grid acts like a cheese grater, badly scraping cyclists who fall. Just two weeks ago, a cyclist heading west on the western drawbridge fell, ripping open his elbow and knee and spending several days in the hospital after surgery.

The bascules also have some mechanical and electrical problems due to corrosion. The east drawbridge is noisy, slow to operate, and, because of its relatively low height, has to be opened frequently to let boats through.

Once the westernmost span is rebuilt, at a cost of $12.4 million, that bridge connecting Miami to Biscayne Island should last a few decades before it requires replacement, Miranda said.

The rest of the causeway bridges is a different matter. Though Miranda said he doesn’t expect to have to shut down any other portions of the Venetian on an emergency basis in the near future, he can’t guarantee it.

“I’ll be honest,” he said. “Anything can happen at any time. Those bridges are almost 100 years old. They will have to be replaced one by one. We cannot continue putting Band-Aids on them.”

Replacing the fixed bridges that connect the residential islands, however, could carry some complications as well, engineers say.

FDOT officials stress no decisions have been made and that numerous public workshops will precede issuance of any final recommendations.

But the agency’s Venetian plan manager, Dat Huynh, said the replacement option would likely recommend “slightly” raising the height of the fixed bridges that connect the residential islands to reduce their exposure to saltwater. That could limit access to the small spoil islands at the midpoint of several of the bridges, he said.

And raising them more than about one feet, he said, would also likely require extending the length of the bridges into the islands, encroaching into residential areas — something Huynh said both the county and state, not to mention residents, want to avoid.

“We don’t want to be impacting those homes or the islands themselves,” he said.

Apart from their height, though, Huynh said new bridges could easily replicate the design details of the historic causeway. Although FDOT has shown renderings with modern metallic railings in public meetings as an alternative, he said attendees have “overwhelmingly” preferred the historic look.

“We feel that we can match that look and feel. But you’re going to get a better bridge,” he said. “We’re getting a bridge that meets modern standards and accommodates some of the desires of the community.”

He conceded, however, that replacing the bridges could endanger the causeway’s listing on the National Register, an honorific that also qualifies structures for certain grants.

If the chosen alternative is to keep the existing fixed bridges, he said, they could be hardened against corrosion by a technique called cathodic protection. That could extend their service life to 25 years.

One leading Miami preservationist involved in the battle to save the causeway last time says she much prefers the last option. Historian Arva Parks said she believes FDOT engineers often exaggerate the cost and difficulty of preserving historic roadways.

“Only in Miami,” she sighed. “People in San Francisco get to keep their historic bridges. I would want someone to prove to me that we can’t keep what we have there now. It’s beautiful. I don’t think there’s anything else like it in Miami.”

The Venetian, she and other preservationists say, is one of Miami’s key historic landmarks.

The opening of the causeway in 1926 led to the rapid development of Miami Beach, until then a sandbar that had seen only sporadic development, mostly a handful of luxury hotels for wealthy visitors. The causeway construction, which also included the creation of the four central residential islands from dredged-up bay bottom, replaced a wooden bridge that had been built by Miami Beach pioneers John Collins and Carl Fisher.

No matter what option is eventually chosen, the project portends lots of pain for Venetian residents, the bike and car commuters who use the causeway as an alternative to the MacArthur and Tuttle causeways, and the hundreds of runners, walkers and cyclists who use it for recreation. Venetian residents and users just finished enduring two years of ripped-up roadway as the county resurfaced and beautified the island portions of the Venetian.

How soon the bridge repairs or replacement work begins, and how long the work takes, will depend on the availability of money and the alternatives chosen.

Ideally, state and county engineers say, all the bridges would be done in succession. But replacement would take an estimated 69 months — or nearly six years — and refurbishing a bit more, Huynh said.

The engineers say they would try to keep at least a single lane of traffic open during construction, but work could require shutting bridges completely for months at a time, in particular if the east drawbridge has to be rebuilt. One possible temporary relief: a temporary bypass bridge at the eastern end, something done successfully in the 1990s.

Don’t expect work to start anytime soon, though. After the FDOT study is done, it must be sent to the federal government for review, followed by funding applications and design work, pushing construction closer to 2020.

To Know More

For detailed information on the Venetian Causeway study, go to http://www.fdotmiamidade.com/VenetianBridgeStudy.html

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