The George Bush Boulevard bridge reopened without ceremony late on the afternoon of April 29. It had been shut since March 3 after getting stuck in the up position. The bridge then underwent repairs and three weeks of tests. Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star
By Joel Engelhardt
After a nearly two-month closure, the George Bush Boulevard bridge reopened April 29 once new parts were installed and testing completed.
While supporting the county’s work to get the bridge back in service, Palm Beach County Mayor Robert Weinroth said he could do nothing to help make sure the public stays better informed about the capability of county bridges. That’s because bridge inspections are almost entirely exempt from public disclosure for security reasons under state law.
After the county said it would cost $1,100 to publicly release a redacted version of a single inspection report, with no guarantees of any useful information, Weinroth said he would leave questions of public access in staff’s hands.
“I’m not an engineer,” he said. “I can’t say if that’s appropriate or not.”
Weinroth has said the George Bush Boulevard bridge, which opened in 1949, is in line for a $1 million evaluation to see if it needs to be replaced. A new bridge is projected to cost $45 million. He said the money could come from the federal infrastructure bill passed by Congress and lauded by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at a mid-March appearance at the bridge.
Weinroth withstood criticism from residents angered by the need to drive a mile south to Atlantic Avenue or 3 miles north to Woolbright Road to get around the stuck bridge.
It had stopped working March 3 after damage to a main shaft and gear system, officials said. The shaft had to be custom-built and, after three weeks of testing to make sure the bridge was aligned correctly, it reopened, the county said in a news release, adding “intermittent bridge closures are to be expected as continued monitoring is planned.”
“You have to have a certain amount of tolerance that these bridges get old. Things wear out. We all have to accept that,” Weinroth said. “For a county of 1.5 million people, I think we’re doing a pretty decent job of taking care of the needs of our residents.”
To make matters worse for drivers, about a mile of George Bush Boulevard from Northeast Second Avenue to State Road A1A has been undergoing a $2 million face-lift since July 2021. The work, which includes resurfacing and new sidewalks and bike lanes, is expected to go on until summer 2023.
Both the county and the state, which own a total of 11 South County Intracoastal bridges, freely provide a single-page bridge inspection cover sheet, which shows the date of the inspection, the age of the bridge, the bridge’s score on two measures and a check box to indicate whether the bridge is functionally or structurally obsolete.
The six county-owned bridges are at Palmetto Park Road, Woolbright Road, George Bush Boulevard, Linton Boulevard, Ocean Avenue in Lantana and Camino Real in Boca Raton.
The five state-owned bridges are at the Boca Raton Inlet, Spanish River Boulevard, Atlantic Avenue, the Boynton Inlet and East Ocean Avenue in Ocean Ridge.
None of the bridges was marked as structurally obsolete in inspections dating to 2018.
The George Bush Boulevard bridge had by far the lowest “sufficiency rating,” at 48.5%.
A bridge with a sufficiency rating below 50% is considered eligible for federal replacement dollars. The ratings run from 0% (poor) to 100% (very good) and take into account structural adequacy, whether the bridge is functionally obsolete and level of service to the public.
None of the other bridges had sufficiency ratings below 60% and one, the East Ocean Avenue bridge in Ocean Ridge, topped 90%.
Five of the bridges — Atlantic Avenue, Boynton Inlet, George Bush Boulevard, Palmetto Park Road and Camino Real — were marked as “functionally obsolete.” That could mean the bridges don’t have enough lanes or are too narrow, may be drawbridges on congested roads, or may not have enough space for emergency shoulders or bike lanes, County Engineer David Ricks wrote in an email.
Camino Real travelers endured a 16-month closure in 2018 and 2019 as the county refurbished the 1939 structure. Upon completion, its sufficiency rating jumped to 73.1% from 37.5%.
A six-week paper chase
The Coastal Star engaged in a six-week exchange with county spokespersons, attorneys and engineers to review inspections since 2015 of all Intracoastal Waterway bridges between South Palm Beach and Boca Raton.
Even though six of the bridges are county-owned, the state pays consultant TranSystems Corp. to conduct the inspections. Payments for inspecting Palm Beach County bridges, which undoubtedly include more than those six bridges, since July 1 have topped $336,000, a state spokesman said.
Both the county and the state provided the bridge inspection cover sheets. When asked why they wouldn’t provide the entire report with redactions to avoid exposing the confidential security information, as the county does with other public documents, county spokeswoman Nicole Ferris cited state law and pointed to what the bridge inspection consultant wrote on the cover page: “Only the cover page of this report may be inspected and copied.”
However, state law doesn’t say anything about providing only a cover page of a bridge inspection report. The state law, passed after the 9/11 attacks, exempts from public review “building plans, blueprints, schematic drawings and diagrams” that “depict the internal layout and structural elements of a building, arena, stadium, water treatment facility, or other structure.”
In late April, six weeks after The Coastal Star’s initial records request, Ricks provided an estimate that it would cost the newspaper $1,025 plus another $62 for redacted paper copies of the most recent inspection for the George Bush Boulevard bridge, a 414-page report chock full of schematics.
Without any assurances the nonexempt information would provide anything useful, The Coastal Star declined.