BY SUE ERWIN – An historic moment was commemorated Tuesday afternoon around 2:30 p.m., when the new swing bridge opened to traffic for the first time.
Both lanes on the bridge were open to drivers, and the coordination and cooperation of the many skilled workers involved made the transition nearly flawless.
The new 22-foot tall bridge, which has been under construction since August 2012, will have four traffic gates and a four-foot shoulder on each side.
Gasparilla Island Bridge Authority Executive Director Kathy Banson-Verrico said that for the next couple of months, the lanes along the bridge will be narrow as the work continues.
Drivers will see that there are now green, yellow and red traffic signals, and all the gates have red flashers.
“I am so proud of our team and the precise, hard work each person gave to this project,” Banson-Verrico said.
In case of a dire emergency, the bridge has two manual circular metal openings that can be mechanically operated if there is ever an electrical catastrophe.
The new bridge operator house is fully loaded with the most advanced technology, including four cameras that show various angles of the bridge and the water. It is two stories high and is completely air-conditioned throughout. The walls consist of windows giving the operators a birds-eye view of the surrounding waters.
Doris Muller, who works in Boca Grande, was the first person to exit the island using the new bridge.
“It felt really strange to be driving on the other side after all this time – but it was also very exciting,” she said.
Happy VanBeuren and her dog, Penny, were the first guests to arrive on the island using the new bridge.
“This is great – now we are a part of history. I’m so happy it’s finally done,” Happy said.
Banson-Verrico said the Boca Grande Fire Department is going to use the old bridge to do some training in the next couple of weeks.
“We are happy that they are able to utilize it for training purposes while it is still here,” Banson-Verrico said.
Banson-Verrico added that the new bridge is still an active construction zone with a speed limit of 20 miles per hour.
“The Charlotte County Sheriff deputies are scheduled to be on site to strictly enforce the limit. There are still workers in the area, and safety is a priority,” Banson-Verrico said.
The bridge is scheduled to open every hour at the top of the hour, but it will only open if a boat is present or if maintenance is required, or when hailed by a boat.
The original bridge was built from 1952 to 1958 to replace a ferry service. The GIBA took over operations of the bridge’s causeway and toll system in 1998.