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Wonderwood bridge set to connect with traffic

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By DAVID BAUERLEIN

The Times-Union

After a nine-month delay, the new Wonderwood Connector bridge will open to traffic "within days," the Jacksonville Transportation Authority said Wednesday.

JTA spokesman Mike Miller wouldn't specify a date for opening the bridge because the agency wants to make sure no last-minute weather disruptions alter the schedule, he said.

The bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway originally was scheduled to open in November. But a year ago, the JTA discovered the bridge was in jeopardy of being a few inches too low for a Coast Guard permit that requires a height of 65 feet above the waterway.

Sorting out a multimillion-dollar claim for who is at fault in the construction delay will take months or even years, JTA officials said.

The bridge is the linchpin of the $140 million Wonderwood Connector, which will be a 9-mile, four-lane road from Florida 9A to Mayport Road near the entrance to the Navy base in Mayport. Motorists traveling between Arlington and the Mayport area will be able to use the new bridge as a faster alternative to Atlantic Boulevard and its bridge.

Atlantic Beach Mayor John Meserve said opening the bridge could be "anti-climactic" after the target date kept falling back month after month. But he said it will make a big difference for drivers, including those who work at Mayport Naval Station.

"First of all, it's a long time coming and I think the need for it is going to be pretty obvious over time -- the need for it not only for the military, but also as an evacuation route and as another east-west route," Meserve said.

"We're obviously looking forward to alleviating the traffic congestion at Mayport Road and [Florida] A1A during rush hour," Navy Lt. Whit DeLoach said.

To save money on the cost of constructing the bridge, the JTA opted for a design that would have built the bridge to be 65 feet, 2 1/4 inches above the waterway, just above the Coast Guard-required height. JTA Deputy Executive Director Matt Dominy said the agency chose that approach over early plans to build the bridge with a clearance from 67 to 68 feet.

Although the chosen design left less margin for error in terms of the Coast Guard permit, Dominy said the JTA's position is that the bridge's designer, Jacobs Civil, is responsible for ensuring its design would meet the Coast Guard's standard.

"They signed and sealed a set of plans that said they could be in compliance with the permit," Dominy said.

Jacobs Civil didn't return phone calls to the company's Jacksonville office for comment. The company has worked with JTA to redesign the bridge using counterweights so the bridge will be high enough to meet the Coast Guard permit's requirement, which is meant to ensure tall boats can navigate the Intracoastal Waterway.

Eby Construction won a $36.5 million contract to build the bridge and began work in 2001. The company has filed a claim seeking about $3.2 million to cover the cost of delays and extra work associated with the bridge's height, Dominy said. Eby is seeking mediation to resolve its claim. The JTA disputes the amount of Eby's claim and will argue the company is entitled to less money, Dominy said.

The JTA learned of potential problems with the bridge's height in August after the agency's engineering consultant did calculations for whether the bridge would be high enough. The results showed it would be 5 inches too low, which contradicted Jacobs Civil's earlier calculations during design of the bridge, Dominy said.

Dominy said those calculations don't provide a "definitive answer" for how high the bridge will be but instead provide engineers an expectation of the height, based on how the weight of the bridge will cause its beams to sag. Dominy said when Jacobs did its calculations, bridge designers were only able to use "theoretical" information for how the various parts of the bridge would be affected along the length of the span. Dominy said he believes Jacobs did that analysis correctly at that time.

"Jacobs is a national firm. They're a good firm," he said. "It's not the first bridge they've designed."

He said that by August, most of the bridge was built, so the second round of calculations could use the actual conditions for that part of the bridge to predict the height for the rest of the bridge when it was built.

He said the JTA hasn't decided what height it will use in the design of the new six-lane bridge the agency will start building in late 2005 where Beach Boulevard crosses the Intracoastal Waterway. He said the JTA isn't far enough along in design to know whether it will design the bridge close to the Coast Guard's permitted height, as was the case for the Wonderwood Connector bridge.

Meserve said he's confident the Beach Boulevard bridge won't face a repeat of the Wonderwood Connector's problem.

"I'm sure the JTA will check the figures twice and measure three times before they put the steel up and it will go off without a hitch," he said.

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Scott Ewell does concrete finishing work on the Wonderwood Connector bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway near Mayport Road. After months of construction delays stemming from height concerns, the bridge is slated to open soon, according to the Jacksonville Transportation Authority.

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Carolyn Pomeroy checks the wiring for the lighting on the Wonderwood Connector bridge near Queen's Harbor as workers prepare for the bridge's imminent opening. Construction on the span over the Intracoastal Waterway began in May 2001 and was delayed over height problems.

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Both because portions of it are more like an expressway, but then the traffic lights come when it connects with McCormick. At least for right now...

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