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Skyway needs repairs, but will last

Engineers say cracks, deteriorating bearings, pier erosion and other problems on the bridge are not serious.

By JANE MEINHARDT

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 7, 2000


Three years ago, engineers found what some called unexpected signs of wear on the new Sunshine Skyway bridge, leading to a major repair job that took nearly three times as long and cost twice as much as planned.

photo
[Times photo: Fred Victorin]
Virgil Stevens fishes off the old Skyway bridge pier with the new bridge in the background. Officials say the new Skyway is fit to last.
The latest Skyway inspection shows similar deficiencies on the 13-year-old bridge, but both inspectors and state officials pronounce it fit to grace Tampa Bay for much of the 21st century.

Still more repairs will be needed on the $244-million bridge, but the Florida Department of Transportation and consulting engineers say the cracks, deteriorating bearings, pier erosion and other deficiencies found in an inspection performed last year pose no serious problems.

"The bridge overall is in very good condition," said Jose Garcia, district DOT structures engineer. "It's functioning as expected and designed. We expect it to last 75 to 100 years."

The Skyway's first major facelift began in May 1998. The repairs were based on consultants' evaluation of the Skyway's 10-year inspection in 1997, which rated the bridge's condition as satisfactory to good. Some experts said the inspection showed the bridge may be deteriorating faster than it should, but other experts and state engineers disagreed.

The repairs cost the state $2.6-million, double what was anticipated. It included spot-painting the 42 steel cables, replacing some bearings, patching cracks and installing a lightning protection system. The contractor, Sieg & Sons, took 16 months instead of the scheduled six.

Garcia said extra repairs were added to the project after the contractor started, including more cable painting -- the most difficult part of the job. Wind and weather caused delays.

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Consultants hired for the latest inspection reported in September 1999, giving the bridge similar grades to the earlier inspection and finding similar deficiencies, some of which Sieg & Sons were in the process of repairing during the inspection.

Owen Ayres & Associates of Tampa submitted a 400-page report, which Garcia said is typical for a bridge as complex and unique as the Skyway.

The consulting engineers listed deficiencies such as cracks in the road, columns, beams and other parts of the bridge, a deteriorated electrical system, bay bottom erosion around bridge piers and bad bearings. None of the problems from the 1997 inspection had worsened, the consultants said.

Their recommendations included:

Sealing some cracks and performing periodic testing to determine how much salt has seeped into the concrete, which could rust steel reinforcing rods.

Completely overhauling the bridge's electrical system.

Repairing or replacing various bearings, which allow horizontal bridge movement.

Garcia described most of the deficiencies as routine items that will be included in a bridge preventive maintenance program scheduled every two years. A contract expected to be awarded this month will cover about $500,000 in Skyway repairs.

More crack repairs are planned. "The cracks we're concerned with are in the columns, closer to sea level," Garcia said. "We have not seen anything that requires us to do any special monitoring."

The electrical system, including cable and navigation lights, likely will be overhauled in 2002.

Consultants found swift tidal currents around the bridge have caused erosion, called scour, to undermine the foundations of some main span piers. The piers adjacent to the two main piers have been undermined as much as 4 feet.

The engineers noted that the protective structures called dolphins around the main span partially restrict the flow of Tampa Bay and increase turbulence around the bridge, causing visible underwater sand plumes that extend nearly a half-mile in the direction of the tide.

"The scour condition is still being analyzed," Garcia said. "The Skyway area is not your typical . . . tidal area."

The University of South Florida has agreed to study the currents. When that's done, the state may hire a consultant to evaluate the situation. Erosion could cause the bridge to settle, but Garcia said a Skyway survey last year showed no settlement.

In an inspection summary, Owen Ayres & Associates said, "The department should be quite pleased with the structural performance of the Sunshine Skyway over the last 12 years. It has performed very well and, with routine inspection and preventive maintenance, should continue to provide excellent service for decades to come."

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