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Five Years After Deadly Bridge Collapse at FIU, New Plans Are Unveiled by FDOT

Wed May 17, 2023 - Southeast Edition #13
Miami Herald

The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), which took direct control of the project from FIU after the collapse, has now unveiled plans for a $20 million, 290-ft.-long footbridge over eight lanes of heavy traffic on Southwest Eighth Street. (FDOT rendering)
The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), which took direct control of the project from FIU after the collapse, has now unveiled plans for a $20 million, 290-ft.-long footbridge over eight lanes of heavy traffic on Southwest Eighth Street. (FDOT rendering)

Five years after the catastrophic collapse of a pedestrian bridge with a novel design meant to punctuate Florida International University's (FIU) ascendancy as a public institution, state engineers are finally ready to build another in its place.

This time, though, innovative building methods are out. So is FIU, which conceived of the ambitious project a decade ago and oversaw design and construction of the failed structure. The university will only serve in an advisory role for the new bridge's creation.

The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), which took direct control of the project from FIU after the collapse, has now unveiled plans for a $20 million, 290-ft.-long footbridge over eight lanes of heavy traffic on Southwest Eighth Street.

Like the earlier version, the new bridge will link FIU's main campus to the small, working-class city of Sweetwater and its flourishing University City, a dense cluster of apartment towers with cafes and shops for students, faculty and school staff.

Despite some superficial resemblance to the old bridge, the nearly finished design plans for the new structure take a decidedly conservative approach to engineering and construction — an effort clearly intended to reduce to a minimum the risk of a repeat of the shocking calamity that occurred on March 15, 2018.

While still under construction, that bridge's 950-ton steel-and-concrete main span crumpled onto the roadway below, crushing cars stopped at a red light and killing six people, including an FIU student and a construction worker. Ten others were injured, including a crew member who was permanently disabled.

Federal investigators later determined the probable cause of the collapse to be a design error. They faulted everyone involved in the project, including FIU, state transportation officials and private contractors, for failing to stop work or close the road after alarmingly broad cracks began spreading along the bridge's structural supports well before it was finished.

Officials with FDOT are confident that the new footbridge's critical design changes will prevent another catastrophe.

Proposed Bridge Means ‘New Hope' for FIU

FIU President Kenneth Jessell, who helped plan the bridge project in his earlier role as the university's chief financial officer, said he is looking forward to the start of construction on the new structure.

"This is the fifth anniversary of the bridge collapse, and it certainly brings up the tragedy of the bridge, but it also brings up new hope in terms of our ability to deliver on our commitment to providing a safe passage across Southwest Eighth Street," he told the Miami Herald in March. "From what we've seen, the community is very excited about the bridge."

Unlike the old footbridge, a unique design consisting entirely of reinforced concrete, the blueprint for its replacement — soon to go out for construction bidding — relies on tried-and-tested engineering. A pair of steel girders running the full length of the bridge will provide sturdy, nearly fail-safe support, the Herald reported.

And unlike the old main span, built by the side of the road and hoisted into place in one piece under the accelerated bridge construction (ABC) method designed to speed construction and minimize traffic disruptions, the new bridge will be erected the old-fashioned way: bit by bit, an approach that will require regular road and lane closures over two years of work, starting in about a year. Investigators later determined that the ABC technique played no direct role in the bridge's failure.

At a public presentation of the new plans in Sweetwater earlier in the year, FDOT and consulting design engineers from Miami's BCC Engineering said that their safety-above-all goal will mean closures for even minor overhead work.

Gateway to College Town

Like its failed predecessor, the new span is meant to be more than just a bridge to safely convey people on foot and on bikes over eight lanes of rushing traffic.

Rather, the new footbridge is designed to also stand as a conspicuous new gateway to FIU's main campus and University City, an initiative that has given the school's sprawling suburban home what it has long lacked — ample student housing and a college-town atmosphere — while revitalizing Sweetwater's formerly depressed and underdeveloped downtown.

To that end, the new bridge reproduces some elements of the old, if not its unusual structural design.

The steel beams of the structure will fully support a smooth, poured-concrete walkway topped by a continuous canopy for protection from the elements. Steel cables from leaning twin pylons, 150 ft. tall, will help stabilize the bridge and dampen vibrations — though they are meant mostly for looks, not to support the bridge's weight. The mast, cables and bridge will all be brightly illuminated after dark.

Elevator towers and sweeping ramps and stairways will rise from ground-level plazas at each end of the bridge, and function as student hangouts equipped with Wi-Fi, concessions, and a suite of electronic security features.

The bridge section over the canal that separates University City and Southwest Eighth, also known as the Tamiami Trail, will be wider than the main span to accommodate seating and special events.

"This bridge will be a signature bridge," said Daniel Raymat, an engineer with BCC Engineering.

Once the bridge is finished, FIU will own, manage and support it. Maintenance costs, estimated at $60,000 annually, will be split between FIU and Sweetwater, the Miami news source learned.

Is a New Bridge Necessary?

Some skeptics, though, have questioned whether the expensive new bridge, funded mostly with federal and state transportation grants, is necessary. Some road planners believe the Southwest Eighth crossing at 109th Avenue, where the bridge would go, can be made much safer with an improved design at a far lesser cost.

But FIU's Jessell said he has no doubt the bridge is needed because students have been among those struck and injured or killed while crossing the intersection.

FIU sophomore Freddy Gonzales, interviewed on a recent afternoon while he waited to cross Southwest Eighth, said he would prefer to use a bridge if one were available to walk between campus and his University City apartment. It takes too long for the crossing light to change, and it does not feel safe, he said.

Recently, he noticed pieces of a broken car headlight scattered at the corner.

"That's something you don't want to see in a corner you're standing in," Gonzales said. "I usually stand behind the pole now to stay safe."

FDOT and its consultants plan to remove the existing marked crosswalks on Southwest Eighth once the bridge is finished, though it is unclear whether cyclists and pedestrians will be blocked or prohibited from crossing at street level.

In the five years since the collapse, meanwhile, the cost of construction and materials such as steel and concrete has risen sharply. Hard construction costs for the new bridge amount to $18.2 million, according to FDOT and BCC Engineering. That figure is a substantial increase over the initial $16 million estimate and the approximately $14 million construction budget for the first bridge.

But the Sweetwater official responsible for the execution of the University City plan since the mid-2000s said the bridge is essential to ensuring the safety of the thousands of new residents who will be crossing between the city's rapidly redeveloping downtown and FIU.

"It's imperative," explained Robert Herrada, Sweetwater's assistant city manager and chief of staff to its mayor. "Safety is paramount. That is ideally achieved by a bridge."

New Bridge to Honor Victims

Last March, FIU dedicated a memorial on campus to honor the victims: a 7-ft.-tall bronze sculpture of Alexa Duran, the 18-year-old student killed, and five lamp posts surrounding it to represent the five other people who died. They were Alberto Arias, age 53; Brandon Brownfield, 39; Rolando Fraga, 60; Oswaldo Gonzalez, 57; and construction worker Navaro Brown, 37.

FDOT installed a bronze plaque at the corner of Southwest Eighth and 109th Avenue in front of FIU's Nicklaus Children's Ambulatory Surgery Center and Red Parking Garage. The plaque will be moved to the new bridge once it is finished. On it are the names of those killed with individual messages about each person.

Atop the plaque, it reads: "You will always be remembered."

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