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17th Street bridge to be partially closed all winter for repairs

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER (Week of October 29, 2020)

Starting Monday, island drivers who use the 17th Street bridge may hit a traffic snag as the Florida Department of Transportation embarks on a six-month repair project on the structural base of the bridge. The bridge won’t be fully back in service until well after Easter.

City Manager Monte Falls said FDOT told him the repair of “spalls” in the concrete beams under the bridge cannot wait until after season – which makes it sound serious.

Falls said, and FDOT confirmed, that the westbound side of the bridge will be closed first, for three months. All traffic will travel on the eastbound side of the bridge starting Monday, with one lane traveling east and the other traveling west. When that work is completed in January, the eastbound side of the bridge will be closed, with all traffic shifted to the westbound side.

The bridge was started in 1977, completed in 1979 and named after Alma Lee Loy by an act of the Florida Legislature in 2012.

FDOT says contractor DBI Services will be repairing “spalls,” meaning that the bridge has been cracking and shedding flakes of concrete in some places and must be fixed. According to the national engineering firm Robson Forensic, spalls occur routinely when steel rebar inside the concrete rusts.

“Rusting of the embedded steel reinforcing occurs when that reinforcing bar is exposed to water and air ... when exposed to both of those elements, a chemical reaction takes place wherein iron oxide (rust) is produced,” according to Robson.

Rusting can increase the volume of the metal up to six times, putting pressure on the surrounding concrete. “These expansive forces can cause the concrete to delaminate or to crack, spall and break off,” Robson engineers Gregory Pestine and Mark Duckett said.

They said spalling is a problem for three main reasons – it’s unsightly, it poses a hazard because pieces of concrete can fall on people walking under the bridge, and it weakens the bridge, potentially making it unsafe to traverse.

Two spans of the bridge need to be repaired, according to FDOT.

A retired Vero Beach engineer with 30 years of executive experience in highway and bridge construction and maintenance who spoke to Vero Beach 32963 on background said he suspected the two spans in need of repair are closest to the ocean, as those spans are most exposed to salt and humidity. He also speculated that the damage might be pretty bad if the project could not be delayed until April.

He said different contractors than those installing new streetlights on the bridge would have to be hired to complete the structural repairs, so it does not make sense that one job would have to immediately follow the other for logistical reasons. The most recent FDOT inspection report on the Alma Lee Loy bridge is the subject of a pending public records request but was not available at press time.

FDOT spokesman Guillermo Canedo said the structural repairs are the final phase of previously scheduled work on the bridge, not something that unexpectedly popped up.

“The first phase was completed in April of 2020 and included repairing/replacing the outside barrier wall bullet railing and repairing the bridge fender system,” Canedo said. “The second phase, to be completed next week, replaced the median traffic barrier mounted lighting with a completely new LED lighting system that meets current standards for wind loads. The third phase will repair spalls in the concrete beams in spans 58 and 59 (east end) of the 62-span bridge. This is the last phase of the work planned for the bridge.”

The state has no cost figure for the project on file. “The repair is covered under the department’s Asset Management contract and as such an engineer’s estimate was not developed by the department,” Canedo said.

The Vero Beach Police Department published a notice on social media letting drivers know to expect the rerouting of traffic. Drivers are asked to be extra patient and to mind the oncoming traffic on the bridge.