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Miami wants slow bridge gone _ fast

This is the youngest of the nation's major cities _ still four years shy of its centennial _ but it probably tries harder than most to dazzle with constant newness. Which other city would outline part of a new elevated people mover with purple neon lights?

Given such predilections, it is no wonder that Miami cannot wait to be rid of the old Brickell Avenue drawbridge over the Miami River. This rusting, clanking, 63-year-old reminder of the city's not-so-distant past may have survived hurricane Andrew with hardly a scratch, but it is slow and temperamental and so annoying that its days are numbered.

"They should replace that thing," said Manuel Ojeda, a bicycle courier who is often delayed by the opening of the bridge when he is in a hurry to deliver an important package downtown. "Every little boat or tug that passes, they've got to open that thing. They should have consideration."

The homely bridge is in the perfect position to annoy. It is on U.S. 1, an important thoroughfare into Miami's business district. Although it is not raised during peak morning and afternoon rush hours, on a typical day the bridge might open more than 30 times, each opening holding up traffic for at least five minutes and sometimes longer _ much longer.

The bridge is a microcosm of the city. Each day, it is crossed by 38,000 cars, buses, taxis and trucks, along with innumerable joggers and bicyclists. It has its own collection of street people, who have learned that cars stopped for a drawbridge make captive targets for handouts.

And the bridge lays claim to its own legion of briefcase-toting office workers like Thomas A. Tortorici, a business typist who works in a nearby office building.

Like others who need to cross the Brickell bridge regularly, Tortorici has made it a point to study his enemy. He has calculated that it takes about a minute and a half from the time the bridge operator activates the hydraulic opening mechanism to the time the steel deck actually begins to lift.

He has also figured out the length and time of an average stride and how many steps it takes to get across the bridge (about 25). "I can usually get across in less than a minute," he says, plenty of time to beat the bridge.

Taxis usually try to beat the bridge, and so do motorcycles. But those for whom the clanging bells of the lowering gates toll with the most terror are bicycle couriers.

Juan Rivero, a courier, said he had miscalculated once after it was too late to turn around. "I jumped it," he said, "and when I started seeing it open up, with the water underneath me, I regretted it."

The bridge tenders spend their days inside a tiny, air-conditioned operator's house on the north side of the bridge. One said he had to be tough with would-be bridge beaters, especially the bicycle couriers.

"They're always going to try you," Ojeda said. Sometimes automobile drivers will also try to sneak past the gates, he said.

"They like to play chicken with you, but I let the gate down right on the car. That's one thing you've got to do, or they're not going to respect you."

The state, which owns the bridge, estimates that the span has only about eight years of usable life left and plans to replace it at a cost of $31-million. Work is scheduled to begin next year.