By Noelle H. Lowery
The Smokehouse Bay Bridge has become a symbol to many Marco Islanders — a symbol of government spending, extravagance and waste, as well as a public safety nuisance.
After all, the city of Marco Island has spent the last six years and more than $2 million trying to repair the deteriorating spans, concrete spalls and crumbling seawalls while also designing a replacement bridge that some have dubbed “the Taj Mahal of bridges.” Then there is the price tag of the currently-approved suspension bridge design, a moving target ranging between $8 million to more than $13.1 million.
City Public Works Director Tim Pinter hopes to change the public’s view of the bridge project. He and T.Y. Lin International are value engineering the firm’s design, trading the steel arches and cabling for larger girders and a traditional span bridge. The team’s first stab at redesign shaved off nearly $3.6 million at no additional cost to the city. Pinter believes more fat can be trimmed.
“We believe we can get (the price) down to a figure that is doable,” says Pinter. “When we actually put the project out to bid, the comparison will be pretty obvious.”
To recap, Smokehouse Bay Bridge has been a fixture of the island’s North Collier Boulevard since 1963. Now 50 years old, the bridge is five years past its original life expectancy. The city completed a band-aid project in 2007 to repair portions of the bridge deck, but more work was necessary.
In 2009, the city held a public design charrette, in which five bridge engineering firms competed for the design contract. TY Lin International won the charrette with a bold suspension bridge design that included a large pedestrian walkway across the bridge as well as underneath it.
Then, Pinter notes, everything changed: “(The bridge) would be a statement, the focal point of downtown redevelopment. If we could have proceeded then, it would have gone more smoothly. Then, the economy changed. The city changed. Council changed. Staff changed. The administration changed. Everything changed.”
The economic downturn put the bridge project on hold until last year when the city hired another engineering firm, Cardno TBE, to conduct a Final Condition Assessment and Recommendation Report as evidence to replace the bridge. Completed last October, the report plainly stated the bridge was “functionally obsolete due to the lack of adequate shoulders separating the travel lanes from the sidewalks.” The concrete bridge decks, bulkhead supports and seawalls were found to be in drastic stages of disrepair and deterioration. While the bridge decks were between 51 and 57 percent deteriorated, with some “sections of deterioration penetrating from the top to the bottom of the deck slabs,” the bulkheads and seawalls were so degraded and cracked that seawater was intruding and fill soil lost. According to the report, stability issues could rise thanks to several holes developing adjacent to the backside of the bulkheads.
The report kicked the bid process for the bridge project into high gear, just to have it come to a screeching halt again when the four bids received came in between $3.4 million to $5.1 million over the original estimates. Sure, some price increase was anticipated due to an uptick in the economy, but there were also errors and omissions in the design that the City Council just could not swallow. Council also wanted to know what it would cost to repair the bridge to make it last five to ten more years.
During Pinter’s July 15 presentation to council, Councilor Larry Honig called it “confidence eroding.” This position was echoed by former Councilor Larry Magel: “I’m not happy with any of this… I still haven’t seen any actual numbers of what it would cost to repair the bridge.” He asked for those numbers some 18 months ago.
Building Bridges and Value Engineering
So city staff and T.Y. Lin’s engineers have been back at the drawing board, chopping up the suspension bridge decision. In addition to the steel arches and cabling, items under the knife may include changes to the proposed railings, elimination of the architectural stairs and retaining wall for them, revisions to the sidewalks and different lighting and landscaping scopes.
Bridge building experts agree the city could have saved itself a giant headache if it had used a design/build bid process rather than the charrette. Bob Burleson, president of the Florida Transportation Builders Association, concedes that charrettes are common place, especially when “what you want is the local community buying into a project,” but he cautions, “Florida Department of Transportation does no major bridges that are not design/build projects… In most case, there is a cost savings.”
When considering the Smokehouse Bay Bridge project and its pricing issues, he adds, “My gut feeling is the estimate that was done was probably overly optimistic… It is possible that a design/build project could have come in under price. This is the most competitive the market has ever been. Bids are still coming in five to ten percent below estimates.”
If value-engineering the current design doesn’t work, the City Council has made it possible to consider just repairing the bridge — again. In August, council approved a $95,000 expenditure to have Cardno TBE create a bid package for the design and repair of the bridge. First blush estimates to repair the bridge and seawall have been touted between $3 million and $4 million.
Having both options available has some city council members looking to the future. “I am cautiously optimistic that (the redesign) will come back in the ballpark we are looking for,” says Councilor Ken Honecker. “Both options will be back to us by December probably.”