Drawbridge openings face new restrictions - Soundings Online

Drawbridge openings face new restrictions

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Cash-strappedBrowardCounty wants to close three drawbridges on the New River during late-night hours to save money, but the Coast Guard opposes the closures and won’t approve them unless the county can argue persuasively that the closures won’t interfere with navigation on the Ft.Lauderdale river.

Cash-strappedBrowardCounty wants to close three drawbridges on the New River during late-night hours to save money, but the Coast Guard opposes the closures and won’t approve them unless the county can argue persuasively that the closures won’t interfere with navigation on the Ft.Lauderdale river.

“Of course, the Coast Guard is opposed to these closures since boats need to go out at night to meet schedules and go out with the tide,” says E. Gwin Tate, a Coast Guard bridge management specialist in Miami. “BrowardCounty wants to keep them closed just so it doesn’t have to pay bridge tenders 24 hours a day.”

Tate says the Coast Guard had not officially rendered a decision regarding the county proposal, but expected to before the end of March.

The county’s Public Works and Transportation Department has proposed closing the S. Andrews, S.E. 3rd and S.W. 7th avenue bridges from midnight to 6 a.m. to trim about $110,000 in bridge tender salaries annually from its budget.

“You can’t do that,” says Margaret Croxton, executive director of the Marina Mile Association, which represents 70 marine businesses up the New River. “Anyone who knows anything about this knows you can’t shut down navigation.”

She counts 22 boatyards and marinas – 10 of them major ones that service megayachts – upriver from at least one of those bridges.

“Most of my 70 members would be affected,” she says. “That’s our river.”

The Ft. Lauderdale Marine Advisory Board (MAB) has gone on record opposing the closures. “It doesn’t make sense,” says John Terrill, a former megayacht captain, now a waterfront realtor and chairman of the MAB.

He has identifies at least three classes of yachts that use the river in the wee hours: megayachts, which, because of their deep drafts, have to play the tides carefully and sometimes negotiate the river at night to steer clear of the Jungle Queen cruise ship and other river traffic; sportfishing yachts, whose captains want to get an early jump on the day’s fishing, and crewed day-charter yachts, which take guests out on dinner and party cruises late into the night.

Terrill says if the bridge closures caused even one megayacht to look elsewhere for a refit or repairs, the lost business would more than offset the bridgetender salaries saved by closing the bridges. A 2007 industry study found that megayachts spend on average $169,000 when they visit a South Florida yard.

Broward commissioners are facing a sea of red ink in the 2008-09 budget that takes effect Oct. 1. A sputtering economy along with rising costs, declining real estate values and a state referendum mandating lower property taxes have caused a budget squeeze that could require $100 million to $150 million in cuts.

Trimming bridge tender salaries “is in a study phase,” says Santokh Sohol, a project manager for the county’s highway and bridge maintenance division. “We have not made any decision. The U.S. Coast Guard is going to make the decision. We’ll have to wait and see if we can close those bridges.”

Sohol says he gave the Coast Guard a traffic study of the river for the period October 2004 to January 2007 that shows that the bridges open for boats 20 to 35 times a month between midnight and6 a.m., which averages between a little less and a little more than once a night. Though the numbers aren’t large, boats sometimes have little choice but to use the river in the late-night hours.

“If they can control the tides, I’d like to know how,” Croxton says.

Tate says if the county commission insists on pursuing the reduced bridge tender hours, the Coast Guard will advertise the proposal in the Federal Register and send mailings to area residents and businesses to solicit comments. He says Coast Guard decisions aren’t made on the basis of numbers of comments but on the substance of those comments, which would include the impact that the closures would have on navigation and the businesses on the river.

He says the Coast Guard has offered the county an alternative that would save on bridge tender salaries: Keep the bridges in the up position late at night.

The tally of vehicles using the Andrews Avenue bridge alone from midnight to 6 a.m. Oct. 1, 2007, numbered 278, a significant number, but Tate says there’s a difference between boats using the New River and autos traveling city streets.

A boat motoring up the New River to a marina, boatyard or private slip or headed down the river to the Intracoastal Waterway or the ocean must use the river. “There are other vehicular routes that cars could take to get around,” he says.