In three recent City Council meetings, I’ve made presentations to my colleagues and to the public on the situation surrounding the Smokehouse Bay Bridge.
This critical bridge, which serves as an important evacuation conduit in case of emergency, handles up to 25,000 vehicles per day in season. Sadly, the bridge is classified as “functionally obsolete,” which means that it does not meet current design standards: The road lanes and sidewalks aren’t wide enough, and the guardrails are the wrong material, among other issues. Worse, of course, those of us who go over and under the bridge (particularly on our bicycles and in our boats) know that the structure is approaching the end of its life. Portions of the roadway are crumbling at the surface, the seawalls aren’t robust enough for a big storm surge, and signs of deterioration are even more evident from underneath, and from independent inspection by an engineer hired by the city.
We are told that the costs of repair are very high and of course won’t give us too many more years of service. It is in this context that City Council decided, by a 5-2 vote, to put out to bid a project to rebuild the bridge. This project could cost in the range of $9 million. Bids will be reviewed at the June 15 City Council meeting.
I was one of the two who voted not to proceed at this point, and I’d like to explain why. Clearly the bridge needs to be replaced. The issue I’ve raised with my colleagues is whether we’ve sufficiently exhausted the possibilities for financial aid to Marco Island to rebuild the bridge, and I do not believe we have done enough. I’ve tried to interest the council in discussing who can help us pay for the bridge. But in the last City Council meeting, it became clear that few of my colleagues believes we can get help. I think this belief is misplaced, and I’ll continue to urge us to take a more aggressive posture with the county and federal government. I agree that the odds are not great – this idea might not work, and we’ll be right where we are now, with Marco Island paying 100 percent of the cost – but we should try. We have not tried for quite some time.
The city applied for so-called Tiger grants several years ago, but we were turned down. Tiger grants require that the bridge in question be multimodal (which ours is not), multifunctional (which ours is not), have a rebuild cost in excess of $12 million (which ours should not – we added bells and whistles so that it would qualify for consideration) and be “infrastructure critical” (maybe).
Next down the line are large federal grants, but these are reserved in the case of bridge rebuilding for bridges classified as “structurally deficient,” and our bridge is not judged structurally deficient.
Finally, we could be eligible for funding directed by our Federal Department of Transportation District (we are in Florida District 1), when our bridge falls below a Health Rating of 80 (it was rated 80.32 in January) so that it hits the Federal computer models making it a possible candidate. Eligibility also requires that our Municipal Planning Organization (MPO) endorse the project. The MPO is a political body, and my colleagues feel that the MPO will not be supportive. I believe that such a posture amounts to negotiating with ourselves, sometimes called giving up early. I realize we were just helped with the Jolley Bridge, thanks to the herculean efforts of former Councilor Mike Minozzi and the congruence of the first tranche of TARP funding. Those conditions aren’t present today, but the recent collapse of the Skagit River Bridge in Washington two weeks ago has prompted calls from the NTSB for more infrastructure spending. It could happen. For example, shortly after the I-35W bridge collapsed in Minneapolis in 2007, almost $1 billion in Federal funds was made available for bridge repair and reconstruction.
My recommendation to try hard for some level of outside funding is of course influenced as well by the extraordinary level of debt on Marco Island. Fortunately, we’re a robust community with a history of very conservative fiscal management, but that doesn’t change the fact that Marco Island has the highest level of debt per capita in the state of Florida, when we include the Water/Sewer Utility. We should be more ambitious and grabby when it comes to our share of transportation dollars. We should get tough, marshal our political friends, argue for our share of transportation-related spending in Collier County, and not give up the fight when we haven’t even put gloves on. The bridge is not unsafe. No government agency has said that the bridge is unsafe. No engineering firm has said that the bridge is unsafe. We can wait a year or two or even more before taking on this currently unnecessary project.
Larry Honig | Marco Island