BRIDGE CLOSURE AVERTED

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The Florida Department of Transportation will spend $5 million to strengthen the 75-year-old Flagler Memorial Bridge with a redundant foundation, so the community will keep its critical northern gateway in and out of Palm Beach, DOT Secretary Ananth Prasad said Tuesday.

Prasad said the bridge, which has settled slightly in the Intracoastal Waterway because of work on its $94 million replacement, will be propped up with concrete-and-steel micro-piles that will be constructed on three sides of the existing weakened piers. Once constructed, those piles will be connected to the existing footing and support it, Prasad said.

“What it basically does is take the timber footing out of the equation,” Prasad said, referring to the bridge’s original vertical supports.

The job of fortifying the bridge will take about six months.

“The design is done. We’ve given the design to the contractor,” Prasad said.

The replacement bridge had been expected to open in early 2015. Prasad said completion of the new bridge will be delayed by the number of months it takes to fortify the existing bridge.

The state had the international engineering and construction management firm Parsons Brinckerhoff create the repair plan.

The DOT chief said the bridge would be closed at night, starting around 9 or 10 p.m., rather than during the day when needed during the strengthening process. Once the work is completed, the bridge will again be open to four lanes of traffic.

“You’ve brought Christmas early to Palm Beach,” said Council President David Rosow. “I think we can tolerate those evening closings, because we all should be in bed by that time,” he quipped.

To move the job along, the council approved a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week construction schedule. Prasad said he would let the town know what schedule will work for the contractor, PCL Civil Constructors, assuring the council that the state would move quickly to get the job done.

Residents and members of the business community had lobbied for a fix since mid-February, when the regional DOT office said closing of the bridge to vehicular traffic was imminent due to safety concerns. They said the bridge’s permanent closure before its replacement opens would devastate businesses and potentially put lives at risk in case of medical emergencies.

Prasad said the repair would start as soon as possible and would involve drilling relatively slender pilings around three sides of each pier. “There are 22 piles per side of the pier,” he said. “It’s a smaller footprint of concrete piles that we drive. It reduces the amount of displacement.”

Mayor Gail Coniglio asked Prasad to come to Palm Beach to relate the news. She called the development fabulous.

“I think it’s going to be an answer to the business community, to the residents and certainly to Fire-Rescue. As always, safety has been our first and foremost concern and the secretary has certainly proven that they can get it done and get it done quickly,” Coniglio said.

After construction of the north bridge’s replacement began last fall, engineers monitoring the project realized the south side of the east bascule pier has sunk into the earth beneath the Intracoastal Waterway. That and additional settling caused the misalignment of the drawbridge’s locking mechanism. After several repairs and a replacement of that mechanism, the DOT reduced vehicular traffic to one lane in each direction and prohibited trucks weighing more than 5 tons.

The regional DOT office announced on Feb. 20 the imminent closing of the bridge, citing safety concerns, but that date was moved to April 1 after a meeting between District Four Secretary James Wolfe and Coniglio.

Resident Llywd Ecclestone and Coniglio contacted Gov. Scott and his staff to press the state to keep northern access to the island open one way or another.

Answering critics who suggested Palm Beach is getting special treatment because of its political contacts, Prasad said the DOT’s policy is to always keep bridges open while replacement spans are constructed, except for temporary closures when unavoidable. The DOT chief said the Ocean Avenue Bridge closed in 1999 during construction of a replacement because the new bridge had to be constructed in the same footprint in the environmentally sensitive area. Two other bridge projects that required closing during construction, in Lantana and Tequesta, were not FDOT bridges, Prasad said.