Government Infrastructure Mismanagement
Hello, Everyone. Welcome to the latest edition of the St Petersburg Area News Podcast. I’m your host, Joshua Black, and, for the next 10 minutes, we will discuss the progress–or lack thereof–being made on the new bridge taking traffic to and from the Shore Acres neighborhood.
For those of you new to the area, St Petersburg has many island neighborhoods, especially to the East. There is Coquina Key on the South Side; Snell Isle, Shore Acres, Venetian Isles, and Placido Bayou in the middle; and Caya Costa, Wheedon Isles, and Harbor Island on the North. Various bridges over the numerous bodies of water connect these places to the part of the Pinellas Peninsula called St Petersburg.
As you can imagine, the neighborhoods on these islands are filled by a great number of boat owners. Some of them have been complaining about the elevation of the 40th Ave Bridge for some time, saying that, in times of high tide, they are unable to maneuver their vessels safely, whether to or away from their docks. These folks started a campaign to “Raze and Raise” the bridge before it was closed.
Like all the tax funded bridges in the area, the 40th Ave Bridge was put on a priority list for replacement, to give the city an approximation of when it should expect to need to budget the funds to demolish and rebuild the structure. This evaluation happened in 2016, according to the website put together by the city for the discussion of the bridge. In August of 2017, on a Sunday evening, an announcement came from the city that an inspection had shown significant corrosion on the center span, and that the bridge was deemed unsafe for vehicle traffic. The bridge was closed that evening, and, after another inspection about a week later, it was reopened with barriers to keep traffic off the center.
At first, the barriers were wider, causing the city to erect a 15 mph speed limit for the bridge. After a few months, the city narrowed the barriers and increased the speed limit to 25 mph. That’s where we are today.
The city insists that these inspections were done independently and are honest. Some of us don’t believe them, because we find it convenient for the city to do these sorts of illogical disruptions right as the campaign to Raze and Raise the bridge heats up. Who is inspecting bridges on a Sunday night? If the bridge is so unsafe, why have fully loaded dump trucks been traversing the bridge the entire time? If the inspections are so honest, why the narrower barriers? It’s not as if the center span got replaced in the interim.
Nevertheless, all man-made structures do need to be replaced at some point, especially those that sit in the water. The problem with “public ownership” of these properties is that personal property rights get trampled in the process, starting with taxation, but also including noise pollution and access to personal property. “Coming to a consensus” doesn’t really mean that everyone is happy, just that they realize they can’t get a better outcome. Which is basically how this meeting went.
The speaker at the meeting, a city staff member whose first name is Brejesh, spent the vast majority of his presentation explaining how the city was following the law to a T, meeting the timelines that were promised, and making progress towards eventual completion of the project. But, when the question was asked near the end of the meeting about a start date for the full reconstruction, he said next November.
Yes, next November. A full 12 months from now. No one was happy about that.
In the meantime, city staff will seek approval for a temporary restoration of pedestrian and bicycle access after the holidays. This involves moving vehicle traffic south by building out an additional lane, in order to keep traffic off the supposedly problematic center span. (I keep saying that I’m not sure I should trust the city on this, but, if the boat enthusiasts bribed someone for this, they definitely got a raw deal.) It will take 4-6 weeks just to build the extra lane, allowing cyclists and pedestrians to use what is now the westbound vehicle lane once it is complete. Vehicle traffic will then snake south and then back north at each end of the bridge.
The vehicle lanes might remain in place through the construction of the new bridge, but I was unable to confirm this at the meeting.
What I did learn is that, instead of making the bridge rise much greater, they shifted the crest of the bridge 50 feet west, making the west end of the bridge slightly steeper than currently. They also said that the new bridge will still be ADA compliant, having only a 5% grade. The reason for moving the crest is that the water level in that spot allows for the greatest clearance for the boats over the deepest part of the body of water. It sounds like something that should have been part of the initial design of the bridge, but I guess the motto back then was something like “good enough for government work.”
Another part of the meeting was seeking consensus on the aesthetic and safety features of the new bridge. Two kinds of light fixtures were proposed: the FDOT standard LEDs, like the ones that line most roadways in Florida, or the more ornate ones the City of St Petersburg uses in special places, including downtown. The FDOT standard lights are higher, requiring fewer of them to be installed along the bridge, and cost less individually, too. But the survey showed that the majority of the attendees liked the more ornate ones, and that isn’t a surprising outcome. Most of the people who live in the area have wealth that can afford special adornments. The only problem is that they aren’t the only ones bearing the cost. All of us are, though they may argue that their tax bills are greater than many of ours (certainly than mine!)
Same result for the survey for the type of walls. The city has a more ornate design that they have been using on some bridges. Most people liked that, as opposed to the rather plain standard FDOT walls.
The consensus broke down with the typical section survey. Three basic designs were shown, one with a barrier separating pedestrians from wheel traffic (bicycles and automobiles), one with a raised buffer separating opposing traffic, and one with raised buffers separating bicycles from automobiles. No one liked the option I described first. Why? Because a bridge with that specification would need to be a full two feet lower than the other options, because the barrier sticks out into the sightlines of the people who would be trying to get out of their driveways on the east end of the bridge (the houses on the west end also have driveways, but they go to 12th St NE, not the bridge). Regardless of the fact that this would be the safest option for pedestrians, the desire to get the clearance for the boats is much greater than the desire to keep pedestrians safe. Pedestrians are stuck with just raised sidewalks, a 7 foot wide bicycle lane, and maybe a raised bump between them and cars. This may be enough of a safety measure, in the end, but it isn’t the strongest.
Interesting to note that the Snell Isle Bridge is the “controlling clearance” for this area, meaning that boats that can’t fit under it can’t reach the 40th Ave Bridge, and that its clearance is the same (11 feet) as the safer typical section design. The other designs allow a 13 foot clearance, and the opinions were almost evenly divided between them. In other words, the city could opt for the greatest measures of pedestrian safety and make no difference in the clearance for the boats that can actually enter Smacks Bayou, but that’s not the preference of the vast majority of folks at the meeting.
The results of gathering a sense of consensus are unclear, because the city staff made sure to tell everyone that this is not a binding vote. We will see what happens when they present their plans to the City Council, some time next year.
Next city council meeting is December 6. Consent Agenda will be released December 3. If you don’t like an item, make sure to contact the council member for your district as soon as possible.
This has been St Petersburg Florida Area News, a production of the Reconstructionist Radio Network.