The Smokehouse Bridges, which are part of our main hurricane evacuation route, have severe sub-surface deterioration in both the bridge deck and approach slabs according to an engineering condition assessment commissioned by the city last year while I was still on council. This in-depth assessment (which was more thorough than the visual inspection conducted by the FDOT) also recommended replacement of the bridges now before being disabled by a hurricane or tropical storm.
Another concern is that the sidewalks on the bridges are very narrow and pose a hazard as part of the heavily used shared use pathway on Collier Boulevard with the volume of bicycle and pedestrian usage. Concerns over this unsafe condition were expressed to City Council by a recent petition from residents.
An additional safety concern for these bridges is the narrow openings underneath the decks between the seawall and center dividing wall. The current 26 foot openings are only slightly wider than the barges used for seawall repair of a large number of homes frequently passing beneath, and there has been recent communication to city staff about a large chunk of the seawall taken out of this area. Two bridges elsewhere in the U.S. recently failed due to collisions, and the new Smokehouse Bridges will have a 60 foot wide opening with more vertical clearance to help avoid such a disaster.
In my opinion, there is also no realistic possibility of obtaining any outside funding for this project in the foreseeable future. In addition, there is no relationship between the Health Rating/Index of bridges and obtaining any external funding. Also, from my experience on the Collier County Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) Board, which oversees the allocation of external transportation funding, I think that their perspective is that Marco has already received our share of external funding for the Jolley Bridge and that we are already receiving a $1 million per year grant for taking over previous county roadways (Collier Boulevard and San Marco Road) including the Smokehouse Bridges. The MPO also has 12 bridge projects rated as a higher priority than Smokehouse Bridges, with only around $1 million dollars per year to allocate to that entire category.
In fact, the likelihood of external funding is so remote that Collier County is replacing the Chokoloskee Causeway/Bridge with County funds because “no State or Federal grant money is available,” according to their senior manager for the project.
Finally, this project can be funded by the city without incurring any additional debt by using the $3 million dollar grant over the next three years from Collier County for the city taking over Collier Boulevard and San Marco Road and allocating a portion of the more than $7 million dollars in uncommitted surplus funds in the General Fund, and a similar amount in the Utility Enterprise Fund to handle the relatively small amount for required utility relocation. Cost can also be reduced by the city assuming some of the inspection responsibilities and eliminating the circular stairways.
This project is “ready-to-go” with the investment in design work and permitting already made and completed.
In summary, ensuring the health and safety of our residents should be the city’s top priority, and replacing the Smokehouse Bridges should be done immediately!
Dr. Bill Trotter