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Trouble In Paradise? Florida's Aging Bridges

They’re in better shape than many in the country, but a recent mishap raises serious concerns.

The Sunshine State’s coastal spans are key to enjoyment of the yachting lifestyle and vital to the region’s economy and recreational appeal. They’re in better shape than many in the country, but a recent mishap raises serious concerns.

By Kim Kavin

News helicopters hovered like vultures just north of Miami Beach, swarming with zoom lenses trained on the Trinity Rockstar. The 161-foot (49-meter) motoryacht might as well have been a porpoise caught in a net, brought from a slow, run-of-the-mill tow to a sudden, scary halt. Above her was the Broad Causeway drawbridge, which had just crashed onto her arch and superstructure. The yacht sat trapped in the metal snag and media frenzy that replayed for hours on South Florida news stations.

Nobody was hurt in the December 2014 incident, which the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission attributed to a hydraulic failure in the bridge. Then additional details emerged, and the story became troubling on a deeper level.

The bridge was 63 years old, more than a decade past the 50-year mark that many American bridges were built to last. In 2010, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) had labeled the bridge “functionally obsolete.” Officials of the municipality responsible for repairs had spent six years debating when and how to fix things, including stripping support columns to bare metal for refurbishment. Council members had finally settled on a January 2015 start for the $11.5 million project.

The bridge crashed onto Rockstar a month before the work was scheduled to begin.

Infrastructure repairs being put off until the last minute, and then at least a few years more, is a common tale across the United States. One week before the Broad Causeway incident, “60 Minutes” aired the blistering report “Falling Apart,” describing how nearly 70,000 U.S. bridges—one in nine—is “structurally deficient.” In the language of infrastructure management, that’s actually a worse descriptor than the functionally obsolete one used for the Broad Causeway bridge. While a functionally obsolete bridge may have inappropriate lanes for current traffic needs, a structurally deficient bridge has deterioration to one or more major components.

Given the current state of America’s infrastructure and Florida’s reliance on bridges, should yachtsmen worry that the Broad Causeway incident is the first of many to come? Do yachtsmen need to look up with a wary eye whenever they pass beneath a span? Officials say no, but then again, they also said the Broad Causeway bridge still had time to spare. A Yachts International examination of the most recent data for bridges in Fort Lauderdale shows there may indeed be reason for concern.

What the Scores Say

Florida, where yachts encounter more bridges than anywhere else in America, has 243 structurally deficient bridges and another 1,760 that are functionally obsolete, according to the Federal Highway Administration. While cause for attention, that’s actually good, percentage-wise, compared with the rest of the country, thanks in part to Florida’s use of gas taxes and other dedicated funding for repairs and replacements. Florida’s bridges also see less weather stress than, say, bridges in the Northeast that endure winter freezes. Looking at the national picture, Florida’s bridge ratings are the stuff of envy.

Zooming in on the superyacht mecca of Fort Lauderdale shows that, of the several hundred bridges in Broward County, 14 are structurally deficient and 109 are functionally obsolete, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

The good news is that none of the bridges yachtsmen regularly cruise beneath to get from open water to Fort Lauderdale’s prime marinas and refit yards are classified as structurally deficient.

Two, however—Las Olas Boulevard bridge and Davie Boulevard bridge—are labeled functionally obsolete, just like the bridge that fell on Rockstar. Both are maintained by FDOT, which does not consider them a safety hazard.

“If it was an immediate danger situation, the bridge would be closed,” says Barbara Kelleher, public information officer for the FDOT district that includes Broward County. “The movable bridges, by law, they’re inspected by our bridge inspectors once a year. That inspection encompasses not only the structure but also the mechanics, the hydraulics, the electrical system that operates the movement itself.”

The Las Olas Boulevard and Davie Boulevard bridges are rated functionally obsolete solely because of their traffic-lane widths, Kelleher says. Their status has nothing to do with parts that affect yachts during openings and closings. No projects are scheduled for rehabilitation or replacement, she adds, because the overall health indexes of both bridges are good. Functionally obsolete status is just one metric used in determining any bridge’s overall health index. Other metrics include sufficiency rating and bridge age.
“You have to look at the health index,” she says. “If it’s healthy, there shouldn’t be a problem like that” Broad Causeway incident.

‘Shouldn’t be a Problem’

Of course, that is a hope all owners and captains share, but a number of the key metrics FDOT reported in July 2015 for the Las Olas Boulevard and Davie Boulevard bridges are remarkably similar to those of the Broad Causeway bridge that fell on Rockstar. All three bridges are of similar vintage, built between 1958 and 1960. All three have sufficiency ratings (on a scale of 0 to 100) below 70—with the Las Olas Boulevard and Davie Boulevard bridges scoring 13 to 18 points below the bridge that failed. All three bridges also have high health ratings, above 85 or 90 (again, out of 100).

When presented with these similarities, Kelleher again said yachtsmen should not worry.

“A small component of the sufficiency rating includes structural condition, but there are many components that make up a bridge structural condition and many other factors that make up the entire sufficiency rating. It would not be appropriate to draw a correlation between the condition of a hydraulic lift system and the sufficiency rating,” Kelleher said, relaying comments from an FDOT bridge engineer. “Also, the Las Olas Boulevard ICWW bridge and the Davie Boulevard bridge on the New River do not have hydraulic lift systems. These two bridges have mechanical lift systems that are made up of motors and gears. Based on the latest biennial inspections, the mechanical lift systems on both of these bridges are in good condition.”

Too Many Cooks?

Trying to get a clear-cut answer about the condition of bridges that yachtsmen regularly use is further complicated by the sheer number of entities that own and maintain the structures. The Las Olas Boulevard and Davie Boulevard bridges are just two among hundreds within Broward County maintained by a variety of state, county and local entities.

Overall, Kelleher said, the number of functionally obsolete and structurally deficient bridges is going down county- and statewide because agencies at all levels are dedicating funding to fixes. Broward County’s recent scores for the bridges it maintains are noteworthy: As of April 2015, all had an average health index of 92 out of 100, with none structurally deficient. That, Broward County says, makes its bridges—including the 3rd Avenue, Andrews Avenue and 7th Avenue bridges regularly used by yachtsmen—among the safest in Florida.

“It’s very unusual for a large municipality,” Ahn Ton, director of the Broward County Highway and Bridge Maintenance Division, says of the high scores. “Nationally, we see less and less funding from the federal funding department to replace our bridges, so locally, in Broward County, we’ve had to expend a significant amount of funding to replace that.”

While various officials continue to assess and debate what work will be done, and when, on South Florida bridges, yacht owners and captains can do nothing but look up with hope that their yachts won’t become the next Rockstar-style cautionary tale. Capt. Glen Allen, managing director of Fleet Miami, which operates 154-foot (47-meter) DeltaUsher, among other yachts, says he has seen the Indian Creek bridge break down three times in the past year alone.

“My major concern goes beyond the bridge infrastructure to bridge operations and training,” Allen says. “There are times the bridges are closed by the operators too early, and there have been times operators are not fully trained.”

Luck of the Draw

Frank Terzo, who owns 51-foot (15.5-meter) Sea Ray Sundancer Bimini Bound, says the same thing—and has personally had problems with the operator of the Broad Causeway bridge that fell on Rockstar.

“That’s the bridgetender that every boater in the world hates, because it only opens to boats 15 minutes after the hour and 45 minutes after the hour,” Terzo says. “If you are even 300 yards away from the bridge, and you beg the bridgetender to please hold it just for 30 more seconds, he doesn’t answer you and just starts closing the bridge.”

Terzo has been cruising in Miami and Fort Lauderdale for more than three decades. The worst infrastructure failure that has affected him in Broward County was about two years ago at the Hollywood Boulevard bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway. He’d cruised up from Miami to stay at Bahia Mar, and the weather turned nasty, forcing him to take the inside route home through the gauntlet of bridges. When he got to Hollywood Boulevard, the gates that control vehicle traffic were stuck. Cars were going through red lights continuously, and the tender couldn’t open the bridge at all.

“The boaters were losing their minds,” he says. “That’s a failure of equipment, those guard gates. It was terrible. So many people were so upset, all lined up, trying to get home in bad weather.”

The little things can add up fast, for sure. Terzo tried to imagine a failure like that—or worse—during the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show.

“You’ve got the world’s largest boat show,” he says. “God forbid any failure occurs any time from late October to early November, you’ve got probably $3 billion or $4 billion in boats going under that bridge. Now that could be a disaster.”

All Aboard Florida and the ‘Railroad Bridge’

"Could we have a catastrophic failure? We don’t know. Nobody knows."

So says Phil Purcell, executive director of Marine Industries Association of South Florida, about the Florida East Coast Railway bridge that crosses the New River in Fort Lauderdale. Because the bridge has just 4 feet of clearance when down, yachting enthusiasts aboard everything from Boston Whalers to Feadships need it open to access many of the city’s marine businesses, including Lauderdale Marine Center, Bradford Marine Shipyard and Westport Yacht Sales.

Right now, the bridge is never closed more than one hour, 45 minutes during any 12-hour period, Purcell says. That accommodates as many as 14 freight trains daily. But a proposal by All Aboard Florida to add commuter trains for high-speed service from Miami to Orlando is expected to bring crossings by 32 freight and commuter trains a day, at least once every hour, for at least 10 to 15 minutes at a time—creating a bottleneck for yachts that could severely affect the shipyards and marinas on the other side.

“We’re not trying to stop the train,” Purcell says. “We’re trying to build infrastructure and offer solutions that help commuters, but not at the cost of the marine industry.”

A draft study by the Federal Railroad Administration concluded the new trains would have a negligible effect on yachtsmen, and when Yachts International went to press, the U.S. Coast Guard had begun a six-month test to see if adding a bridgetender would help. MIASF was looking into a smartphone app, too.

Replacing the nearly 40-year-old bridge is not an option, Purcell said, because freight trains can’t handle steeper inclines that would raise the clearance level for yachts. And even if all parties agreed today to build a new bridge, he said, the project would take five to seven years.

All Aboard Florida service is scheduled to start well before then, which means yachtsmen will have to wait and see how the new rail traffic affects openings and closings, as well as the four-decade-old drawbridge mechanism.

“If it breaks in the down position,” Purcell said, “we also have a big problem.”