For the first time in decades, the Boca Grande Causeway is allowing vehicles exceeding 40,000 pounds to cross the swing bridge, after having approved the increase at their quarterly meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 16.
The process in getting there, however, was somewhat rocky.
Public comment was taken nearer the beginning of the meeting, at the beginning of “old business” on the agenda, while the actual agenda item was discussed by the board at the very end of the meeting. That didn’t dissuade numerous island residents and business owners from standing and addressing the board with their concerns.
“I fully support the normalization of the weight limit to the 80,000-pound weight for several reasons,” said island resident Tom Bowers. “The higher limit should significantly reduce the quantity of truck traffic. That’s something we’re concerned about right now. Looking forward, I understand there’s a big project on the Isles to do, and that golf course project will require enormous amounts of concrete.”
He continued. “We need Hudson’s. We need The Barnichol. They satisfy our shopping needs, and we need to support them. We paid a lot of money for this bridge. It’s a beautiful bridge. I assume part of the money we spent was to increase the weight limit to 80,000 pounds.”
The golf course project Bowers was referring to is a new wastewater plant being built by the Gasparilla Island Water Association, located on The Gasparilla Inn & Club’s golf course. In November of 2014, GIWA Executive Director Bonnie Pringle addressed the GIBA board and told them that if the weight limit wasn’t raised to 80,000 pounds in the future, the project could cost twice as much as planned. This cost would be passed on to island water customers.
Bill Caldwell, GIWA’s vice president, addressed the board at the November 16 meeting. “As Mr. Bowers mentioned, we have a huge undertaking,” he said. “Once we get into building, we will have four or five hundred yards of concrete that need to be continuously poured, preferably all at once. At the current weight limit, we could only transport two yards at a time; with the new limit we could do five trucks to one. That’s 250 trucks vs. 50 trucks. It’s the same with the dirt. We could be shipping 700 trucks of dirt in comparison to 2,800 truckloads worth.” Bart deStefano, owner of the South Beach Bar & Grille, had just finished telling the board how much more he was paying for garbage pickup since the larger garbage trucks couldn’t come on the island because of weight restrictions, when business owner Kevin Kelley stood up to speak.
GIBA board member David Hayes had asked deStefano what size truck was needed to suit the restaurant’s needs, but it wasn’t until after deStefano sat down and Kelley began to address the board that GIBA board member Lee Major interrupted him and sent the meeting into a different direction by bringing up a point of order regarding ethics and board member David Hayes.
“There are provisions in our bylaws which are taken almost directly from state statute, enabling the Authority in dealing with conflicts of interest,” Major said, apparently pointing out Hayes’ participation in the weight limit conversation. “Our bylaws say that anyone who is going to get financial benefit from any matter in front of the board is not to participate in or vote on that matter. My understanding from what I’ve heard is that you are in the process of pursuing the sale of a house and purchase of a lot in Hill Tide (Estates). I don’t want the board to get entangled in another dealing with the ethics committee in Tallahassee. If I’m mistaken, please correct me.”
“This is all taken care of,” GIBA Chairman Ginger Watkins said, and she allowed Kelley to continue with his comment. At the end of public comment, the meeting continued (see highlight box) until the last old business item, which was the weight restriction. Watkins began the conversation by saying, “First thing we’re going to do is talk about the issues you brought up today.
The GIBA staff, from the guy on the commercial scales to Kathy sitting upstairs reading the computer, have spent two years looking at every car and truck that has come on this island.” Hayes stopped her and said, “I don’t think I should be listening to this.”
Watkins said that it was all right, Hayes could listen to the presentation. He just could not vote. The reason for Hayes’ concern was brought up at the end of the weight restriction presentation. He and board member Drew Tucker had to recuse themselves from voting on the matter, as both could be perceived as having a conflict of interest. Tucker lives on Boca Grande Isles, which is accessible only by a bridge that is in need of repair. Hayes had prepared a statement for the board in light of the fact that someone had notified GIBA’s attorney that he, too, had a conflict of interest, having purchased a lot in Hill Tide. Before Hayes could recuse himself, though, Major confronted him.
“It’s your decision. I’m not accusing you of anything, I merely bring it up because the board got swept up in the last dispute we had with the guys in Tallahassee, and they showed considerable antipathy toward this board. I just want it to be on record that we’re aware of this, and whatever your decision is, is your decision.”
Hayes responded to that allegation. “Let me straighten out one thing. This has been unbelievable. I met the folks at Hill Tide and got a brochure. I haven’t done anything but give them a deposit to reserve the lot. Suddenly it got to where I was building a concrete house, and that was why I want to raise the weight limits. Maybe it was the same person who called Rob (Berntsson, GIBA’s attorney), because I got a call from him at 9 p.m. on a Wednesday and he told me someone said I had bought a lot and was building a house, and I had to tell him I just reserved one. Someone must be following me around or something. There are no secrets on this island. How could someone even know all this about me? Someone has too much time on their hands if that’s what they’re doing. If I ever thought for a second that reserving a lot was going to (be an) ethics violation of what we do on this board, I wouldn’t have even done it. I’m getting out of this vote. This hurts me a lot, this boils my blood, but I won’t spend $10,000 on a case to defend myself. I’ll get it on the second one.”
Hayes said he has made his feelings known many times about the weight restriction. “It’s no secret how I feel,” he said. He then officially recused himself. Hayes has been a staunch supporter of raising the weight limits since the beginning, and he is one of the only board members to do so.
At GIBA’s quarterly meeting in April of this year, Hayes vehemently addressed his fellow board members and asked why any of them would consider keeping the weight limit at 40,000 pounds. It was at that meeting that the board approved a “special exception” permit for businesses that needed to have more than 40,000 pounds hauled over the bridge. It was a special exception that required a $500 deposit and a $100 charge per trip for overweight vehicles, and business owners who attended the meeting made it clear they were not happy with the option.
At that April meeting, Major said he didn’t even want special exceptions, and he said there were many on the island who agreed with him. He was unable to offer up who the people were or why they felt that way. He said he felt the only reason the bridge was built to the 80,000-pound specification was to obtain financing through a State Infrastructure Bank loan, which required it.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Watkins said there was still a quorum of voting members, three in all after Tucker and Hayes recused themselves. Watkins proposed a motion to increase the weight limit to 80,000 pounds. The audience broke out in applause. “I want my motion to include, though, that we as GIBA will pay for two inspections a year by the FDOT until we have gone through a two-year period and evaluated every pinion, every piece of peeling paint, every piece of the bridge that could be affected by this 80,000-pound weight limit. We have done so much work on the bridge that I don’t think a two-year period with four inspections is too much. If at any point we see any deterioration in the bridge because we went to 80,000 pounds we need to re-evaluate the decision.” “That’s a budget matter, it doesn’t need to be in the motion,” said board member Gay Darsie. “I’m in favor of going to 80,000 pounds, but I have the advantage of sitting next to Peter, and I’ve been querying him about the pinions and the issues there.”
Darsie was referring to a comment made by Engineering Committee Chairman Peter Strong, who said an FDOT inspection about a month ago found that the main pinion gear was moving and separating by as much as one-half of an inch when the bridge was opening. “We opened and closed that bridge eight to 10 times in an hour,” he said. “We need to understand why. The primary impact is that it knocks all the grease off the gear. Maybe we just need to grease it more frequently.
Another problem they found is that the main large bearing block that holds the pinion gear is meant to be rigidly fixed to the bridge structure. For some reason it is moving when the bridge starts opening, and it makes a noise like someone is hammering on the bridge with a 30-pound sledgehammer. We know these blocks that hold the gears are meant to be rigid, but they’re not. You can physically see it move, and you can see the cracked paint around it. “Do what you want with the weight limit, but I would recommend that, whatever decision you make, you wait until we understand more about these problems. We should know more in about a month, maybe a month and a half.
The first step is to have the design engineer work on it. Once he gives his opinion, we will go to the contractor and see what his position is.” Darsie said a temporary policy until January might be in order. Then, assuming that was successful, the decision on raising the weight limit could be made. Advisory board member Bill Klettke asked what effect, if any, would raising weight limits have on those two issues.
“If the bridge is not open when traffic is going across, is that having an impact on this gear box?” he asked. “Something is causing the structure to move within itself, and they should not be moving relative to each other,” Strong responded: “I would not make the assumption it’s caused by something only when it’s opening and closing. We don’t know what it is. The engineers don’t know what it is. I need to give them time to at least get their reports in and evaluate if this is an issue.”
If multiple trucks cross the bridge at one time, there’s more stress than one heavy truck going over the bridge at a time.
“Six weeks ago we didn’t have a single problem. If we were having this meeting six weeks ago. we wouldn’t be saying any of this. But we do have a problem. Nobody knows what it is, nobody knows what’s causing it.” This isn’t the first issue the engineering committee has addressed. During the April quarterly meeting, Strong’s report included information about a “quirk” regarding the bridge vibrating sporadically when it was opening, called mechanical resonance. That is the tendency of a mechanical system to sway when the frequency of its oscillations matches the system’s natural frequency of vibration. It has been known to cause catastrophic failure in improperly constructed structures, including bridges.
At that time, Strong said the vibration could actually be felt when you were standing on it as it opened. Watkins said GIBA called for the FDOT inspection, which is not obligatory because these are private bridges. They do have a warranty on the bridge, however, and they wanted the inspection before there was no warranty left. Discussion then evolved into having special exceptions with a $500 flat fee for overweight trucks, and to waive the $100 trip charge.
“I think we can monitor it with 80,000, with the caveat of holding traffic,” Watkins said.
Major then spoke. “I do want to make a couple of comments,” he said. “This vote is not a slam dunk. I do have one issue with something somebody said about the people who didn’t want the tour buses (referring to a statement made by an audience member earlier on that, in actuality, a potential problem with tour buses the board had addressed in earlier meetings was not true at all). Maybe it is a red herring; maybe it won’t ever happen and maybe it will. There’s no way to tell now.
From what Peter said, the bridge was built to 80,000 because engineering standards required it. Even though the SIB did not set weight limits, we had to set engineering standards to get the loan. The bridge is certainly sturdy enough to carry 80,000 pounds, but the mechanism itself is not the concrete that will hold an almost infinite amount of weight. “To one degree or another, it’s hard to say that putting more weight on the bridge won’t affect the life of it.
Obviously, the more wear on the machinery, the faster it will wear out. The main thing is, we are controlling how many of these heavy trucks are on the span and the pivot at once. We will have to continue to do that, whether we have a permit or not. There seems to be some effort involved in controlling that. For that reason, it might make sense to continue to have some sort of permit system on those trucks to control all this stuff that we didn’t have to control before. I think if I were in favor of something, it would be more along the lines of a permit system but not a per-load system.”
Watkins said a one-time or annual fee might be in order. Klettke asked what the point of that was. “You’re envisioning that we will always be regulating traffic so any vehicle over 40,000 pounds would be checked?” Klettke asked. It’s always going to be an issue, Major responded. “Three of those vehicles is the equivalent of 60 cars on that pivot at the same time,” Major said. “It’s not a one-way bridge,” K
evin Kelley said from the audience. “It’s built for 80,000 pounds on two lanes.”
“That is indeterminate,” Strong contradicted.
“You’re blowing smoke,” said another audience member, as Watkins attempted to call the meeting to order again.
It is indeterminate what the holding power of the bridge is,” Strong continued. “It was built to take vehicles of 80,000 pounds. We don’t know how many that is. Lee is saying let’s take a conservative position.” Eventually Major, Darsie and Watkins all voted unanimously for the weight restriction change, provided that only one vehicle over 40,000 pounds be on the bridge at one time.
The audience cheered. “Praise the Lord!” Hayes said.