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Bridge demolition issue resurfaces

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By STEVE PATTERSON

The Times-Union

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The Florida Department of Transportation is seeking permits to dispose of portions of the old Fuller Warren Bridge in the river. Opponents want the remnants to be hauled away or converted to a pedestrian promenade. JOHN PEMBERTON/The Times-Union

A long-simmering debate about the planned demolition of Jacksonville's old Fuller Warren Bridge is gaining new public interest and significant political traction.

"In the last two or three days, the phone's been ringing off the hook from legislators," the Florida Department of Transportation's district secretary, Aage Schroder, said this week.

Opponents of the department's plan underscored their resolve by holding a riverfront news conference Thursday where a series of politicians promised resistance at the federal, state and local levels.

"It's not going to happen. If they [the Transportation Department] want a fight, they're going to have a fight," U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown told a crowd behind Baptist Towers, an apartment building for senior citizens. A number of apartment residents attended, carrying signs that read "Help! Save Our River!"

Jacksonville Mayor John Peyton, who had previously supported the demolition plan, told state officials Thursday he wants a better option, said Susan Wiles, a top mayoral aide.

The Transportation Department is seeking state and federal permits to dispose of portions of the old interstate highway bridge in the river.

If the permits are approved as written, the bridge's concrete driving surface, called the deck, would be chipped away and would drop into the river. Rebar and structural steel that supported the deck would be removed. Fifteen sets of concrete pilings would be vibrated loose and carried away, but a number of piers, sunk permanently in place, would be broken up and their debris would remain in the river.

The St. Johns River Water Management District is scheduled to vote this month on a permit authorizing the demolition. But a spokeswoman said Thursday a legal question remains unresolved and could delay the vote.

The Transportation Department says the concrete is inert and would not harm the river's ecology. But critics argue the debris carries residue from decades of car exhaust, and that dropping concrete into the river will churn up old polluted sediments that have settled on the riverbed over many years.

Broader concerns also motivate some critics: a number want to save bridge remnants as a pedestrian promenade, and others say dumping concrete in the river projects a message of indifference about the waterway's health.

Claudia Germano, who teaches inner-city children about environmentalism through a program aligned with the Sierra Club, said she and other volunteers believe dumping an old bridge in the river carries a potent message for children she asks to participate in river cleanups. "Are they going to ask me, down the line, why is it OK for the mayor to want to do that?" she asked.

Peyton supported the demolition plan last month, but the City Council opposed it in a resolution. Wiles said Thursday that Peyton still favors removing the old bridge but wants the disposal plan revised.

In recent days, elected officials of varied political leanings have questioned the demolition.

"I cannot imagine why the state and city would want to do such a thing," Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville, wrote to Schroder this week. "...The conclusion to destroy and dump into the St. Johns River just doesn't seem to be a good one. I would hope that you and or the governor will 'stop the presses,' so to speak, [and] re-evaluate the decision."

At the Baptist Towers event, Brown, a Democrat, was joined by Democratic state Rep. Audrey Gibson and council members Suzanne Jenkins, Glorious Johnson and Art Shad, all Republicans. The congresswoman also willingly shared the stage with Andy Johnson, a radio commentator who has ridiculed her on other issues, once ran for office against her and sued to have her district redrawn.

"On this, we are absolutely, 100 percent in agreement," Johnson said.

The upsurge in criticism has surprised and concerned transportation officials.

"It's being stirred up by someone," said Schroder, who describes critics as well-intentioned but not fully informed.

He said opponents' concerns overlook the fact that concrete riprap is used as an erosion control along many parts of the river. Concrete hauled away from the bridge site may well be sold to someone who breaks it up and spreads it along the shore, he said.

Schroder said the Army Corps of Engineers left debris in the Intracoastal Waterway when it demolished the old Palm Valley Bridge in St. Johns County in 2002. The state's chief bridge engineer said Thursday that in-place disposal isn't routine on large projects but shouldn't pose any problems when the waterway is deep enough.

Schroder said the department has been planning the demolition since construction of a new bridge started in the 1990s. He said leaving the old structure in place will cause river currents to erode foundations of the new bridge, a process called scouring. He said metal-and-concrete barriers can be installed to prevent scouring but at a price. The state spent $5.3 million on scouring protection when the Acosta Bridge was built beside an existing railroad bridge downtown, but the current is stronger by the Acosta and the two projects aren't comparable, agency spokesman Mike Goldman said.

State officials have also considered collecting most of the debris as it breaks off. Some would fall into the river accidentally, and an earlier projection estimated the state would spent $2 million to $2.5 million extra, Goldman said.

Schroder said his agency, like all other permit applicants, will ultimately defer to regulatory agencies.

The demolition plans have touched a common chord in many residents, said Neil Armingeon of the St. Johns Riverkeeper organization, an advocacy group involved in river issues.

"The river is a uniting force in the community. People on both sides of the aisle want to see the river protected," he said.

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I think that they should take away more parts of the middle and then convert the two ends into pedestrian piers connected to both riverwalks. I think that it would look great for the city.

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Personally, I think the whole thing should go. Even if the ends were left, they're still old and crumbly looking. It'll be clean, wide open spaces when the whole thing is gone. But I hope that no rubble gets in the river. That's top priority. If any concrete pollutes the water, I'm calling Captain Planet.

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I like the idea of the pedestrian piers personally. It might require alittle bit of investment to fix the thing up alittle though (put railing on it etc)

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There are a lot of cool things that can be done with it but its costly just to figure the costs. Reading Urban Legend made me think of something Alex Krieger (Dean of harvard's Graduate School of Design) said about the demo of that bridge. He said sometimes you want to leave things out there, that the grit of the city can be as endearing as something thats all clean and slick. Captain Planet Vs. Captain Grit! Stay Tuned. Hope to see you guys on the Art Walk. Tony

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I'd vote to clean it up and keep it. If you tear it down, it's gone forever. Granted it's just a bridge, but in the vein of captain grit, sometimes these types of things give charater to a city or neighborhood. There's the old port draw bridge in Miami that isn't used anymore. They keep it in the permanent up position. Both sides are blocked so you can't use it but it adds so much to the skyline when you're looking from the east. It's hard to imagine not having it.

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Bridge rubble won't end up in river

Fuller Warren debris will be taken to land; unlikely to be done by Super Bowl

By JORDAN RODACK

The Times-Union

Debris from the old Fuller Warren Bridge in downtown Jacksonville will be disposed at an undetermined site on land, rather than dumped in the St. Johns River.

Florida Transportation Secretary Jose Abreu advised Mayor John Peyton of the decision Friday, according to a news release from the Mayor's Office.

"Essentially this had become a polarizing community issue and the best solution is to have the bridge debris disposed of at an upland site," said Susan Wiles, top aide to Peyton.

The Transportation Department will attempt to get rid of the debris before the city hosts the Super Bowl in February, but department spokesman Mike Goldman said it is "highly unlikely."

"I'm not saying it's not possible," Goldman said, "but just take a look at the calendar."

Demolition of the bridge stopped in early 2002 because the department's contractor didn't have a permit to dump rubble in the river.

Before work on removing the bridge can resume, the department needs approval in writing from the St. Johns Water Management District and Army Corps of Engineers. Goldman said he hopes the water management district can make a decision next month, but he did not know when the corps would approve the work.

Disposing of the debris at an upland site will cost the department about $2.5 million more than it would have cost dumped it into the river, Goldman said.

Goldman has been subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury investigating the bridge demolition, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA began investigating the demolition in 2002, and its review included questions about whether state officials should have known the contractor was dumping debris and stopped it.

The Transportation Department had sought permits to dispose of the portions of the bridge in the river. Opponents of that plan, including Peyton and U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, fought against it. Some wanted it hauled away; others wanted the bridge turned into a promenade.

"When you get a unanimous vote from the City Council and when you get the water management board decision, you get the desires of the mayor -- those can be significant factors in the decision-making process," Goldman said.

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