MIAMI (CBS4) – Drivers visiting Key Biscayne may be surprised by a twenty-five cent increase at the toll. The county raised the toll this month after declaring an emergency because part of the Bear Cut Bridge is at risk of collapsing into the ocean.
The toll will fund a $31 million plan to repair, not replace, the 70 year-old bridge.
It’s a controversial plan, especially when you see the bridge’s condition underneath the surface.
Mayra Pena Lindsay, Key Biscayne’s Vice Mayor, said “I worry about it collapsing.”
It’s not what’s on the surface that worries Lindsay, but rather what lurks below.
“That’s really bad,” said Florida International University’s Chair of Civil Engineering, Dr. Atorod Azizinamini.
Dr. Azizinamini, an expert in bridges, believes the bridge’s decay is “not a good sign.”
The bridge’s steel beams have corroded and the pilings are not far behind.
“If you see a problem with one of them it’s usually just a matter of time,” said Dr. Azizinamini.
But Antonio Cotarelo, a Miami-Dade County engineer, disagrees.
It may look awful but it is very safe,” according to Cortarelo who added they’ve been dealing with the issue for some time.
Four years ago they used something called jackets to repair nearly three dozen cracked pilings.
In response to the efforts to repair, Dr. Azizinamini said, “In a sense it’s like you have a cancer and put a bandage around it. It’s not going to help you.”
But that’s exactly what Miami-Dade is about to do again. Place more concrete over cracked pilings.
In documents uncovered by CBS4, an independent consultant, hired by the county, refused to endorse the county’s plan to repair the bridge.
“They could not estimate how long that bridge would be operational,” said Lindsay.
The Bear Cut Bridge is actually two bridges. One was built in 1983 and the other in 1944 – almost 70 years ago.
The steal superstructure, the part cars drive on every day, of the older portion of the bridge appears to be a mess.
“We see it as a dire need to take action now,” said Cotarelo.
This past December, the county declared an emergency, rerouting traffic in an effort to draw up plans to replace the old bridge.
In April, commissioners passed an emergency $31 million plan to replace the superstructure. But the plan leaves out the pilings.
Cotarelo said it would take eight to 10 years to collect the amount needed from the tolls to replace the bridge. The trouble is, there are doubts the old bridge would last that long.
CBS4 discovered that this is a problem that could have been avoided. Emails dated back to 2008 show the county did indeed notice that the bridge was corroding.
Cotarelo noted, “we had it (the bridge) covered with a grease.” When the county finally peeled the grease away, it revealed corrosion so far along there was no time to draw-up plans for an entirely new bridge, just a new superstructure supported by the almost 70 year old foundation.
Since the condition of the bridge underneath is not really known, Lindsay questions whether the planned fix will even last 40 years.
In an effort to see what lies beneath the surface, CBS4 dove in to find out. Amid sharks, dozens of tarpon and lionfish, the bridge’s appearance below does not match the one above.
“There are giant pieces of concrete that have actually fallen off the pilings, pushed away from corrosion inside. One was longer than my arm. There are bigger ones all over the place,” said CBS4’s David Sutta.
The dive revealed that many of the pilings have withered away and almost all of them had rust.
“I would replace it,” said Dr. Azizinamini. “It’s like buying an old car versus a new car right? Buy an old car and it’s cheaper but I have no idea what the previous owner has done. In this case I don’t know what nature has done to it.”
For the time being, Cotarelo agrees with the fix because, “there is a limit to what you can fast track.”
In August of 2007, I-35, a large bridge in Minneapolis, collapsed killing 13 and injuring 145. The eight lane bridge’s plan, and rebuilding, took 13 months.
“If they could do that with a huge bridge, why couldn’t we do that here? Do we have to wait for it to fail?” Sutta asked Cotarelo who answered, “No there are certain processes.”
Dr. Azizinmani stated, “I think they have time. It’s not something that’s going to collapse tomorrow.”
Despite the Bear Cut bridge’s current condition, Professor Azizinmani believes that the bridge has about 5 more years. Enough time, by his measurement, to have a new bridge constructed.
Meanwhile, the county starts construction on the $31 million plan next month.
Key Biscayne, on the other hand, has hired another consultant for another opinion.