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Wabasso Bridge tops state list for danger to cyclists


Everyone involved agrees that the Wabasso Bridge is dangerous for bicyclists and pedestrians, mainly because of its short barrier walls, narrow shoulders and visibility limitations as vehicles approach the crest. Lots of traffic traveling at high speeds adds to the peril.

"Something definitely needs to be done,” said Andy Sobczak, the county's senior planner whose duties include bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.

Even a Florida Department of Transportation engineer who, at the request of a Vero Beach cycling group, conducted a safety study in October 2015 has recommended multiple improvements.

Yet FDOT has shown no sense of urgency in making the bridge safer.

In fact, Bike Walk Indian River County president Hugh Aaron has accused FDOT District 4 officials of deliberately delaying the release of the engineer's report, which was completed in January 2016 but not released to the public until February 2017.

"It was more than a delay," Aaron said, adding that his Freedom of Information requests were ignored until he brought the matter to FDOT's Office of General Counsel.

"They stonewalled."

He said FDOT's refusal to address the span's safety issues is either "administrative incompetence" or the agency is "trying to sweep these concerns under the rug" until it has no choice but to replace the bridge, which was completed in 1970.

"They know there are problems with that bridge, and they've just sat on this report," Aaron said.

"I don't think they'll do anything unless something bad happens or there's an uproar."

Aaron said FDOT officials initially told him a year ago that the report filed by its engineer, Anthony D. Chaumont, "wasn't ready," even though it was dated Jan. 26, 2016.

He said they later "changed their story" to say the report was being merged into a comprehensive study of all the Intracoastal Waterway bridges in the district, which includes Indian River, St. Lucie, Martin, Palm Beach and Broward counties.

FDOT spokesman Chuck McGinness said the department initially planned to address specific bridges, but its Traffic Operations Office "decided we needed to look at all the bridges" in the district.

A statement released Monday by the Traffic Operations Office stated that it formed a team – it also included representatives from the Design, Structures, Bridge Inspection, Modal Development, Planning and Environmental Management, and Program Management offices – to evaluate the district's bridges and identify problems that need to be addressed.

"The team's effort over the past year has resulted in a prioritization of the district's 79 Intracoastal Waterway bridges from the standpoint of need for additional pedestrian/bicycle-related traffic control and related improvements," the statement read.

Among the criteria the team considered were the existence of sidewalks, sidewalk barriers, shoulder width, bike lanes and the number of bicycle trips across the span.

Based on those criteria, the statement said, the Wabasso Bridge "is on the top of the list.”

As a result, FDOT will be "installing audible pavement markings and speed signs within the next 90 days," in addition to coordinating with police to continue to enforce the posted speed limit.

The audible pavement markings and continued speed-limit enforcement were among the recommendations in the engineer's report on the Wabasso Bridge. But there were others:

• Installing a crash-tested fence along the outside of the existing, 3-foot-high concrete barrier – with enough clearance to avoid interference with bicyclists' handlebars – to offer greater protection against a cyclist or pedestrian being knocked off the bridge and into the Indian River Lagoon.

• Re-striping the roadway to reduce the width of the two travel lanes from 12 feet to 11 feet and widen the shoulders from 4 feet to 5 feet, thus allowing the shoulders to be marked as bike lanes.

• Posting signs on both ends of the bridge to alert motorists that bicyclists might be present and that bicyclists have a right to occupy travel lanes.

"Although the bridge appears to be in good repair, it is an old structure built to old standards," Chaumont wrote in his report. "Apparently, at the time the bridge was built, little consideration was given to the safety of people riding bicycles across it."

He wrote that the "best solution" would be to build a new bridge that would allow for up-to-date bike lanes that fully comply with FDOT standards.

"However, assuming that the bridge is structurally sound and able to handle the current volume of traffic," he added, "reconstructing the bridge is probably not economically feasible in the short term."

He concluded that while "no short-term solution will make the bridge as safe as most people would like," it could be made "somewhat, perhaps substantially, safer at a relatively low cost."

Despite the Traffic Operations Office statement, county planner Sobczak said he wasn't aware of any FDOT plans to immediately address safety concerns on the Wabasso Bridge.

He said he's hoping the FDOT will follow up with the installation of a 3-foot-high fence that, with the existing concrete wall, would provide bicyclists and pedestrians a 6-foot-high barrier between them an empty space. He'd also like to see the shoulders widened.

So would Aaron, whose nonprofit Bike Walk group meets regularly with local government, law enforcement and FDOT officials to promote safe biking and walking in the county.

"What they're doing doesn't make sense," Aaron said. "The audible pavement markings are a good thing, but installing them without also widening the shoulder is just putting an ill-fitting Band-Aid on the problem.

"They're admitting there's a problem and they're doing something," he added, "but what they're doing is really inadequate."

Though neither FDOT nor Aaron could recall any bike-related deaths on the Wabasso Bridge, Aaron said few bicyclists will venture across it – because it's too dangerous.

"Some people ride over it once, then never do it again," he said. "That makes it tough for people on the island who want to ride over to the mainland."

Aaron said FDOT presented a plan at last week's Metropolitan Planning Organization meeting to reconstruct State Road 510 from U.S. 1 to State Road 512, and that State Road A1A will be resurfaced.

"So you'll have a nice ride along A1A and new, 7-foot-wide, buffered bike lanes along 510," he said, "with that bridge in between."