TREASURE ISLAND — The good news: One lone underwater implosion, just before Christmas, remains before a rebuilt John's Pass Bridge debuts. The not-so-good news: The official estimated completion date has been pushed back slightly, from spring to fall of 2010.
Since the project began in January 2006, the John's Pass rebuilding has been a whirlwind of construction. Another five-year construction job, at the nearby Treasure Island drawbridge, was still going on through the summer of 2007.
Some thought they'd heard conflicting information from workers about when Gulf Boulevard would get back to normal.
"The word for the last while has been 'a couple of years,' " said Michele Lincoln, general manager of Gator's Cafe and Saloon on Kingfish Drive. "There's a different word every day."
Confusion for motorists and residents likely stems from the fact that the mammoth John's Pass rebuilding is really a series of smaller projects leading up to a grand finale. Think of it as heart bypass surgery, a game of musical bridges, or as one state engineer suggested, having a dinner party and major home renovation at the same time.
"There have been quite a few people who say they don't understand why the bridge is taking so long to complete," said Phil Collins, District 1 commissioner. "I'm not an engineer, but I have to ask the same question."
In truth, the $76.5-million project was always scheduled to take about five years. And while the relatively small 875-foot road may have left some thinking otherwise, state Department of Transportation engineers say five years is typical for fully rebuilding a twin-span drawbridge.
In between the underwater blasts — two in 2006, one this month and one final implosion scheduled for the week of Dec. 15 — workers have labored over the innards of the "bascule" drawbridges, said Pam DelNegro, senior project engineer for the DOT, which is overseeing the work of private contractor Flatiron Constructors.
"There is an immense amount of mechanical parts involved," said DelNegro. "A lot of the activity happens (inside the drawbridges) that people can't see."
The project began in 2006, with the old southbound bridge being demolished. All traffic was diverted to the old northbound span. That summer, engineers imploded columns on the old southbound bridge, and shortly after it was gone.
At the same time, workers began erecting a new northbound bridge. The new span opened in August, and all traffic was diverted to onto its wider lanes as workers began taking down the old northbound span. A final blast in December will take down what remains of that bridge, and then work will begin on a new southbound bridge next year.
State officials say the 17,000 drivers and pedestrians who use the bridge daily will find a newer and better bridge in 2010. It will have dual 12-foot travel lanes in each direction, 8-foot sidewalks on each side, a new bridge tender house and four observation decks, along with improved lighting, signs and pavement markings.
Also, the channel beneath the bridge will be 40 feet wider and 8 feet higher with the drawbridge closed.
DelNegro said the contractor gets a bonus incentive if the firm finishes the job earlier.
John's Pass is home to federally protected wildlife. Manatees, dolphins, sea turtles, birds and other marine animals call the channel home at different times.
Because they can't simply be pushed out, a safety plan drawn up at the state's expense consists of a mathematically calculated blast radius map that shows where animals can suffer harm. A group of observers on land and in the air on the morning of an implosion look for signs of wildlife.
Last week, a small group of dolphins lingering by the pass caused a 40-minute delay in the scheduled blast. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officials say the harm to dolphins, manatees or sea turtles has not been determined, though after each blast, dozens of lifeless fish emerge on the surface of the water.
"It's been over a decade of bridge building," said Jeff Jensen, spokesman for Treasure Island, citing the rebuilding of the Blind Pass Bridge, completed in 1996, and the causeway drawbridge rebuilding. "They're in the homestretch right now."
Luis Perez can be reached at l[email protected] or (727) 892-2271.