Bridge Authority lowers discount threshold

Sheri Kotzum | 315-4353 | @DestinLogSheri | skotzum@thedestinlog.com
Mid-Bay Bridge Authority Board Chairman James Neilson Jr. listens to remarks from Van Fuller, the executive director of the MBBA. A sample of a tendon is placed on the desk to give board members an idea of what happened to the bridge. [SHERI KOTZUM/TEH LOG]

In the aftermath of the emergency closure of the Mid-Bay Bridge, the Mid-Bay Bridge Authority wants to help give frequent bridge users a break.

Normally, drivers must use the bridge 32 or more times a month to receive a discount that makes the regular $4 toll even out to $2 each trip for a two-axle vehicle.

After the eight-day closure, some residents were concerned they wouldn’t be able to make the minimum trips required to receive the discount. At their Jan. 17 meeting, the MBBA voted to lower the amount of trips required to receive a discount.

“In order to show the community that we understand their pain, for the month of January, through Jan. 31, we take that 32 and make it 22 and that would help the frequent travelers over the bridge,” said James D. Neilson Jr., the MBBA chair, as he proposed the motion.

After some brief discussion, and the authority was reassured they would still be able to meet their financial requirements for the year with the loss of revenue, the board passed the motion unanimously.

But how and why did this emergency closure happen? April Williams, the district structures maintenance engineer for the Florida Department of Transportation, spoke to the board and walked them through the events that led to the decision to close the bridge.

According to Williams, the DOT inspects the bridge every two years, as is the federal requirement for every bridge in the state. On the off years, the authority has their own engineer who inspects the bridge on their behalf.

At the beginning of October, the DOT was conducting their regular inspection when they found the first corroded tendon. After more investigating, a second corroded tendon in a different span was also found. The DOT issued some weight restrictions for vehicles traveling on the bridge but still felt good about the bridge’s integrity.

There are six tendons in each span and a total of 870 tendons in the bridge. According to Williams, finding corroded tendons in separate spans aren’t a reason for concern.

“A tendon in two different spans is not a big deal,” she said. “Two tendons in one span is a much, much bigger deal. So we were still confident in the bridge’s ability to carry the load.”

The DOT was working on scheduling repairs but then Hurricane Michael hit and all repair efforts were focused on the affected areas. Last Monday, Williams met with Van Fuller, the executive director of the Mid-Bay Bridge Authority, to talk through their repair plan and let him know there were four other tendons that would also potentially need to be replaced.

Crews went to inspect those tendons on Jan. 8, and found a second corroded tendon in the same span at the last minute, which prompted the emergency shutdown.

“The decision was made because we were not confident in the way the bridge was distributing and handling the load,” Williams said.

FDOT crews and engineers hired by the MBBA worked 18-hour days in two shifts from 6 a.m.-11 p.m until the bridge was re-opened at 11 a.m. Jan. 16.

“We’re very confident in re-opening the bridge and there’s no reason anyone should be concerned,” Williams reassured the board.

Neilson thanked Williams and her staff for their hard work and stated that he realized there was no way notice of the bridge’s closure could have been sent out ahead of time.

“Based on April’s report, it’s obvious that how they found the tendon and there’s no way to give prior notice based on the safety issue, so I think that’s really good for the public to know,” he said.

Going forward, Willaims said FDOT plans to inspect the tendons in the bridge every month for two years in an effort to prevent another shutdown from happening. They are also working on figuring out when and how the normal repairs will take place.

“We need to make sure that we do whatever we can, in partnership with the DOT going forward, to sustain the bridge the way it should be and prevent something like this from happening again,” Fuller said.