With the broken bridge to the east, Albert Chung, a surveyor with Ranger Construction, uses GPS tools to determine the new road edge and drainage slope as part of the reconstruction of George Bush Boulevard. It’s scheduled to finish in summer 2023. Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star
Residents say bridge closure on George Bush Boulevard feels worse than past shutdowns
By Rich Pollack
Betsy Cooke remembers when the George Bush Boulevard bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway closed for five months in 2010.
An eight-minute walk from her Delray Beach home on the east side of the bridge to her office on the west side became an eight-block drive south on State Road A1A to cross the Atlantic Avenue bridge before she then headed back north on Federal Highway.
While she and others took the work on the bridge in stride back then, the unexpected breakdown that closed it last month is different, she says.
“It was still an inconvenience back then, but it wasn’t as bad as it is now because of the amount of traffic and congestion,” Cooke says. “I go over that bridge sometimes five or six times a day. ... It’s a huge inconvenience.”
The bridge broke March 3 and could be closed until the end of April — if not longer — because the replacement parts have to be custom made.
The closure could be just a taste of frustrations on the horizon if Palm Beach County determines it’s finally time to replace the drawbridge, which opened in late 1949. County engineering and public works teams plan now to ask county commissioners for $1 million for a bridge replacement evaluation.
“We recognize the best solution is to start the process of replacing this 72-year-old bridge and will be expediting the process, which starts with hiring a consultant to do an evaluation this year,” County Mayor Robert Weinroth says. “Based on early estimates, we could potentially have a new bridge in about six years.”
Citing exemptions included in the state’s public records laws to protect critical infrastructure that could be subject to terrorist attacks, county officials would not release past inspection reports of the bridge or even discuss its operating system.
Past newspaper stories and limited information from Palm Beach County — which is responsible for maintenance of the bridge — show it has been closed for repairs and maintenance on multiple occasions, including three times between the summer of 2010 and the summer of 2011.
The bridge opened two years after the devastating 1947 hurricane closed portions of A1A and limited access to the nearby Atlantic Avenue bridge. In 2000, the city gave the bridge local historic designation.
In a statement issued March 18, county representatives said the cause of the recent problem was initially determined to be “damage to the original machinery, more specifically, a main shaft and gear section of the drive system.”
A replacement shaft was installed a little over a week after the bridge shut down, but an inspection by an engineering firm showed that other drive shaft machinery parts, including a bearing, needed to be replaced.
While it has been several years since the aging bridge was closed for long periods of time, major parts have worn out before, according to news and county reports.
A January 2011 story in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported that the bridge had to be closed for several days to repair a broken shaft.
Those repairs came less than a month after the bridge reopened in December 2010 following five months of rehabilitation work. The maintenance included the replacement of the non-movable concrete approach slabs, replacement of original parapets with new concrete parapets to Florida Department of Transportation standards, and repainting of exposed steel girders and beams.
Six months later, the bridge was closed again for a few days for electrical equipment updates, according to published reports.
An engineer’s view
While there are many types of bascule bridges, or drawbridges, with different operating systems, those with shafts, gears and counterweights are among the most common.
Introduced in the 1870s to help get ships from the Great Lakes to industry while connecting downtown Chicago to the rest of the city, the most common bascule bridge is basically a level that rotates on an axle, according to Fred Bloetscher, an associate dean in Florida Atlantic University’s College of Engineering.
Essentially the spans of the bridge are attached to the shafts, which run perpendicular to where the bridge deck meets the existing roadway, similar to the direction of the crossing gates, said Bloetscher, a civil engineer. The shaft is connected to a motor and series of gears and operates like a hinge, opening and closing when needed.
In many cases, a counterweight is added to help the motor lift the spans. Often, bridge decks are not made of solid steel to help reduce the weight. Instead, they may have steel grates.
Bloetscher says that over time, the shafts on a bridge can warp and wear because of repeated use. The heavy weight can also wear on the gears, which along with the shaft are subject to steady corrosion because of the wet, salty environment.
County engineering and public works teams are hoping to determine just how much of an impact wear and tear and corrosion have had on the George Bush Boulevard bridge. If the county approves the evaluation for major improvements or a total replacement, it would then hire a consultant to determine the details. The county also would put together a grant application for federal and state funding.
Design for the project is expected to be $5 million while construction is expected to cost $40 million.
Any bridge improvements can’t come fast enough for Ocean Ridge residents like Matt Gracey. “I take that bridge just about every day,” says Gracey, whose office is in Delray Beach.
Both Gracey and Cooke say their new commutes have been made more difficult, especially when they’re traveling from east to west, because of construction for the Atlantic Crossing development on Atlantic Avenue between the avenue’s bridge and Federal Highway.
Construction and congestion were not such a problem when the bridge was closed in 2010, Gracey says.
“I missed the bridge back then, but it wasn’t as troubling as it is now,” he said.