By Tim O’Meilia
Start saving your change for extra gas money. Not because gas prices may reach $4 a gallon this summer, but because the round trip from South Palm Beach, Hypoluxo Island or Manalapan to the mainland will be six to 10 miles longer by Thanksgiving.
Replacement of the 61-year-old East Ocean Avenue Bridge in Lantana is expected to begin by November and last two years, Palm Beach County road officials estimate. And that’s without accounting for hurricanes or other natural disasters.
“We’re all going to have to go through something very traumatic — for businesses and for residents,” said Ron Washam, president of the Greater Lantana Chamber of Commerce. “We know folks are upset. We know it’s going to be a major inconvenience.”
The two-year gestation will produce a taller, wider, safer and quieter bridge designed to last until at least 2088. But not without birth pains.
Merchants and residents raised an array of concerns at two meetings in January, including emergency rescue response time, business losses along East Ocean Avenue, possible lack of parking for boaters in parks on the west end of the bridge, travel time to grocery stores and even the color of the new drawbridge (orangey-brown).
The 30 or so businesses lining Ocean Avenue west of the bridge will be cut off from coastal residents who will drive north to Lake Worth or south to Boynton Beach for their needs. Merchants in the Plaza del Mar shopping center east of the bridge fear losing mainland customers.
At a meeting of merchants organized by the chamber, Lantana Town Manager Mike Bornstein urged business owners to organize themselves and present their concerns.
“We should celebrate the bridge going down, because we don’t have any other choice,” said Wayne Cordero, co-owner of the Old Key Lime House restaurant on the avenue. He and others suggest creating festivals, exhibitions and celebrations to bring customers to the area.
Business owners said they may seek a relaxation of parking restrictions to accommodate larger events that might overwhelm the area.
Hypoluxo Island residents are already discussing holding a demolition party when the project begins.
Although the estimated $35 million replacement has been nearly 10 years in the planning, not everyone is convinced it’s necessary. “This is a make-work project. It doesn’t need to be replaced. I drive it every day. There’s nothing structurally that cannot be repaired,” said South Palm Beach resident Evan Geilich.
The bridge is rated a 38 on a scale of 100, not far above the 30 mark of being declared dangerous. Palm Beach County engineers say the pilings are deteriorating, the bascule spans are corroded and weight restrictions have been put on the bridge.
The new span will be more than 11 feet taller at the center of the channel, at 24.5 feet, and 15 feet wider at 52 feet. The height will allow for 40 percent fewer openings.
The navigation channel will be safer for boaters at 125 feet wide, compared with the current 90 feet.
Although the two driving lanes will remain 12 feet wide, 5.5-foot shoulders/bicycle lanes will be added that don’t exist now. A concrete barrier will separate the driving lanes and shoulders from the sidewalk, which will be 6 feet wide, almost double the current bridge’s 3-foot width.
Bornstein hopes a $400,000 fishing pier planned to be built beneath the west end of the bridge will encourage fishermen to abandon casting from the span itself, but the town cannot ban fishing outright from the bridge.
Although construction had been set to begin in July, current plans call for bids to be sought by May and a contract awarded by August. Demolition could start in November.
County project engineer Kristine Frazell-Smith said the bridge design is not yet complete and final permits have not been issued.
The town of Lantana hopes to lease part of the parking lots at Bicentennial and Sportsman’s parks to the contractor for use as a staging area. The money would be used to refurbish the parks. This idea has boaters worried that parking will be scarce
as a result.