CLEARWATER — State transportation officials hadn't planned their next inspection of the relatively young Clearwater Memorial Causeway until early 2010.
But after learning about cracks forming under the $65-million project that opened in August 2005, they decided to speed up the process.
A St. Petersburg Times photographer two weeks ago noticed several openings under the bridge on the mainland side, almost in the middle at the buttress where the roadway meets the support structure near Chestnut Street and a spiral walkway that leads to the bridge.
The cracks, about 3 feet long and several inches wide, appear to have a corroded substance leaking from them.
When shown the photographs, Florida Department of Transportation officials said they would go ahead and inspect the bridge in the next few weeks for further cracks, then patch up whatever they find.
They stress the bridge is safe or they would fast-track the inspection sooner.
The cracks "are not of critical concern," said Pepe Garcia, a structure maintenance engineer for the district, which includes Clearwater.
The state, which is responsible for inspecting and maintaining the bridge, last looked it over on Jan. 24. It's inspected every other year.
"Our inspectors would have eventually caught up with it," said Garcia, adding that even if they didn't see the cracks until 2010 the bridge would still be safe.
The two cracks — if that's all there is — will cost between $1,000 to $2,000 to repair, Garcia said. He added that these are the only cracks of this caliber to form since the bridge was built.
He offered a number of reasons for them, saying more than likely water seeped through the concrete, which reinforces the steel, causing part of it to corrode, expand and crack the concrete.
He also said it's possible that when construction crews were reinforcing the steel with concrete, a water drainage pipe or one that carries electrical conduits might have dropped and oxygen could have gotten into the gap and caused corrosion.
"It's (also) not unusual for the reinforcing bars to get loose or pushed down when the concrete is put in," he said.
The 2,540-foot-long bridge, expected to last 75 years, has experienced several mishaps since construction began in early 2002:
• In December 2002, an 80-foot section of the roadway sank and twisted 1 foot in a construction accident while crews were pouring cement. It was repaired by demolishing it using explosives. Engineers found no damage to the roadway, but decided it should be replaced.
• In February 2004, extensive cracks were discovered in the bridge's four main columns when the unfinished roadway shifted during construction, bending the columns below. Crews built two new columns around each cracked one, then removed the damaged column. The new columns provide additional support, engineers say.
• In February 2004, a 104-foot section of roadway sank 7 inches overnight when temporary scaffolding holding up the roadway buckled. It was repaired by repositioning the roadway and a state independent review said the bridge met building code.
• In June 2004, cracks were found in a 40-foot section of the bridge's south span, likely damaged as a result of a February 2004 accident. The span was removed using high-pressure water-blasting equipment and jackhammers and a new roadway was built.
After all that, the bridge opened nearly 17 months late in August 2005 and has been trouble free until this latest hiccup.
On average, 33,000 vehicles a day travel across the east-west bridge, a slightly curving half-mile stretch from downtown to the Memorial Causeway. It's designed to funnel traffic from State Road 60 to and from Clearwater Beach. Funding came from all levels of government: city, county, state and federal.
It has two lanes on each side separated by a wide, low concrete median, and the Boston Society of Architects has placed the bridge's design on its list of seven "Landmark American Bridges of the 21st Century."
Mike Quillen, director of the city's engineering department, said the city's job is to sweep the bridge but not maintain it.
He said concrete "has superficial cracks all the time," and that if the bridge wasn't safe "we would have heard about it."
Mike Donila can be reached at email@example.com or 445-4160.