Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse has Florida residents asking: How safe are our bridges?

2021 American Society of Civil Engineers report ranked Florida's bridges among best in US
Posted at 7:42 PM, Mar 26, 2024
and last updated 2024-03-27 00:14:34-04

STUART, Fla. — How safe are Florida's bridges?

It's a question on many people's minds following the Baltimore bridge catastrophe.

For those in Stuart, the incident brings back memories of when the Roosevelt Bridge was shut down in 2020 over fears of it collapsing.


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"It was pretty scary," Stuart business owner, John Couperous said. "A lot of people were pretty upset."

"They started saying it was going to collapse," agreed Lisa Freitas of Lisa Gay Fashions.

Lisa Freitas and Steve Rogers speak about the fears following the 2020 closure of the Roosevelt Bridge.
Lisa Freitas and Steve Rogers speak about the fears following the 2020 closure of the Roosevelt Bridge.

At the time, the U.S. Coast Guard issued a radio warning to keep clear of the Roosevelt Bridge due to the risk of an "imminent collapse."

Chunks of concrete had fallen from the bridge, leaving a large crack in its wake.

"It was a panic, it was a panic," Freitas said.

"I remember there were some structural damages," Couperous added.

"Just the thought that a bridge that new could have the structural problems that it did," Steve Rogers added.

Florida Department of Transportation crews repaired the bridge, and have since said it was never in danger of collapsing.

However, with the Baltimore catastrophe top of mind, those fears are back again for some residents.

"Scary, first off scary," Freitas said.

"It's definitely scary to hear of something like that happening," Couperous said.

"A possible collapse is frightening and our bridge is not nearly as old as the one in Baltimore," Rogers said.

The Baltimore bridge collapse was caused by a cargo ship hitting it.

However, civil engineer Joe McHugh, who now works in bridge forensics, said we may still be able to learn from the bridge's structure. He said the design of the Francis Scott Key Bridge may be outdated.

Civil engineer Joe McHugh discusses the design of the Francis Scott Key Bridge, and the safety of Florida's bridge.
Civil engineer Joe McHugh discusses the design of the Francis Scott Key Bridge, and the safety of Florida's bridge.

"These bridges should be built to withstand that," McHugh said.

McHugh said the bridge was built in the 1970s, and said most newer bridges have infrastructure in place to prevent the entire bridge from falling if one of the pillars suffers a blow.

WPTV analyzed data from the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) to see how bridges hold up in Martin, St. Lucie, Indian River and Palm Beach counties.

NewsChannel 5 found 30% of Indian River County's bridges are 50 years old or older and 10 bridges in that four-county area are labeled as "structurally deficient," including the North Causeway Bridge in Fort Pierce, on which an average of 8,600 cars run daily, and the Sebastian Inlet Bridge, on which an average of 3,200 cars travel daily.

"I'm sure that puts a lot of nervousness in people's minds," Couperous said.

It may sound scary, but McHugh said it's really just a technical term.

"It can be paint peeling, and it can be rated as structurally deficient," McHugh said, "but not necessarily unsafe."

The FDOT echoed that sentiment, telling WPTV reporter Kate Hussey that a structurally deficient bridge, when left open to traffic, typically requires significant maintenance and repair to remain in service. It also will need eventual rehabilitation or replacement to address deficiencies.

To remain in service, structurally deficient bridges are often posted with weight limits to restrict the gross weight of vehicles using the bridges to less than the maximum weight typically allowed by statute. However, FDOT says bridges labeled as "structurally deficient" are in no way unsafe to cross.

A 2021 infrastructure report card issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers ranked Florida's bridge inventory among the best in the nation.

In 2020, nearly 65% of Florida's bridges were in good condition compared to the national value of 45%, with only about 3% of Florida's bridges in poor condition compared to more than 7% nationally.

An FDOT spokesperson also released this statement to WPTV:

"The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) extends its deepest sympathies to all affected by the recent incident. We also extend our thanks to the first responders currently engaged in search and rescue operations. Drawing upon our extensive structural engineering experience and robust bridge inspection processes, FDOT stands ready and prepared to provide any necessary assistance.

The safety and integrity of our bridge infrastructure is a fundamental commitment that we rigorously uphold. Each public bridge within the state undergoes regular inspections conducted by FDOT's team of skilled bridge inspectors. Following, in any traffic-related incident or adverse weather, such as a hurricane, these bridges are promptly subjected to reevaluation.

Regarding safety, infrastructure designs consider the unique characteristics and specificities related to the communities it is built in. In Florida, contemporary bridge designs and construction incorporate robust measures to mitigate the impact of maritime vessels.

For example, numerous safety enhancements have been implemented at the Skyway Bridge in the Greater Tampa Bay region to safeguard against collisions. These measures include elevating the bridge, widening the channel, and incorporating two layers of protection for bridge piers. Most notably, features such as 'Dolphins,' which serve as physical barriers as well as rock islands that completely surround the main channel supports and go all the way to the sea floor. Additionally, Florida maintains continuous coordination with various stakeholders, including local law enforcement, the U.S. Coast Guard, and seaport authorities, to ensure comprehensive safety measures are in place."

McHugh assures drivers they shouldn't be afraid to travel over Florida's bridges.