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17th Street bridge declared ‘structurally deficient’

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER (Week of December 10, 2020)

The 17th Street Bridge, where major repair work finally got underway this week, was declared “structurally deficient” by Florida Department of Transportation inspectors in May, according to public records.

When bridge repair work rerouting traffic for six months was announced at a Vero City Council meeting in October, and City Manager Monte Falls told the council that state transportation officials refused to put off the work until after tourist season, Vero Beach 32963 requested copies of the two most recent inspection reports from FDOT.

Those inspections, conducted in 2018 and in May 2020, found the circa 1979 bridge is deteriorating.

A 2017 national infrastructure report card showed that in 2017, only 1.7 percent of Florida’s bridges were deemed “structurally deficient,” but that percentage grew to 2.9 percent in the 2019 report.

A retired engineer with 30 years of executive experience in highway and bridge construction and maintenance who spoke to Vero Beach 32963 on background reviewed the inspection reports and said the “structurally deficient” designation is not as drastic as one might think.

It doesn’t necessarily mean that a bridge is unsafe to drive over in the short term, but that it should trigger the scheduling of repairs sooner than later – as it did in the case of the 17th Street bridge.

The retired engineer was surprised, however, by how much of the inspection report findings were redacted. Approximately 80 percent of the 21-page report from the May 1 inspection was blacked out, but one line that was readable said in all capital letters, “THIS REPORT IDENTIFIES DEFICIENCIES WHICH REQUIRE PROMPT CORRECTIVE ACTION.”

Basic information such as the 4,770.6-foot length of the bridge and the total deck area of 400,682 square feet, was not redacted.

The overall “performance rating” of the bridge was labeled “poor” with various ratings on elements of the bridge ranging from four out of 10 to seven out of 10. The “sufficiency rating,” which determines whether a bridge should be replaced, or just repaired, is 59.5 out of 100.

The November 2018 underwater inspection was not quite as bad, rating the bridge as “fair” overall and assigning it a 77.9 out of 100 sufficiency rating, but it was noted that portions of the bridge were in “critical” condition in terms of spalling – the flaking or breaking off of pieces of concrete caused by rusting rebar inside the concrete. The same notation in all capital letters about “prompt corrective action” appeared on the November 2018 report.

Mayor Robbie Brackett said he was not told that the bridge had been given a “structurally deficient” rating but said the news of the bridge project arose before he became mayor.

Former Mayor Tony Young said he too was unaware of the May inspection, but he said FDOT did notify the city a while back that the bridge connecting Veterans Memorial Island Sanctuary to Riverside Park would need to be replaced in the next few years.

Young speculated that FDOT might have not been able to begin structural repairs on the 17th Street Bridge until December because they were busy with the Roosevelt Bridge in Stuart, which had to be closed after spalling caused concrete pieces to fall off the bridge in June.

Both Young and Brackett said if anyone at City Hall knew about the May inspection of the 17th Street bridge, it would be Falls.  Young added that Falls worked as a bridge inspector before joining the city staff.

But Falls said he was in the dark, too, about the “structurally deficient” status of the bridge because “FDOT only sends us bridge reports for the bridges under our jurisdiction so that we can plan for any necessary action.

“Going back to my bridge inspection days, ‘structurally deficient’ means there are structural repairs needed or the bridge needs to be scheduled for replacement,” Falls added.

As of last week, both eastbound and westbound lanes of traffic are traveling over the south side of the bridge while crews shore up the concrete on the north side. The FDOT contractor estimates that will remain the case for roughly three months, then the south side will be closed for repairs and traffic will be routed over the newly repaired north side for another three months.

FDOT had no cost estimate for the repair on file in response to a public records request.