Gil Waters watched his vision take shape one concrete segment at a time.
The vision would require 150 million pounds of concrete, 575,000 hours of labor and so many cables that if you laid them end to end, they would stretch 470 miles, or the approximate distance from Sarasota to Atlanta.
There were 480 concrete segments in all — each precast in North Manatee County and transported by barge to the site of the new John Ringling Causeway Bridge.
Waters’ wife, Elisabeth, bought him a telescope so that he could watch the bridge come to fruition from the balcony of his Phoenix condominium unit on Golden Gate Point.
A decade has passed since its completion, but the bridge is still one of the first sights Waters sees in the morning.
It has become a city landmark, according to architect Brent Parker, who designed and also lives in the Phoenix.
“You turn on any news channel,” Parker said, “and this shot of downtown Sarasota with the bridge in the foreground is there every time. You go to the airport and look at the mural at the baggage claim and there’s the bridge. It’s really become the signature.”
“Everybody uses it as a sight,” Waters said. “It’s a passing of a time in history.”
The time that’s long passed is the era of the drawbridge, which was completed in 1958 and stood until 2003, after the completion of the new Ringling Bridge.
That bridge was the second bridge to span the waterway between the mainland and St. Armands Key. It replaced the original bridge that was built because of another man’s vision: John Ringling dreamed of developing St. Armands, Longboat and Lido keys. But he knew that to build his vision on the islands, he needed to build a bridge.
He put $1 million of his own money into building the bridge that was completed in 1926. Ringling eventually donated it to the city.
To christen the bridge, John Ringling drove over it in his Rolls-Royce a month before it opened to traffic.
Waters’ vision was key to bringing about the third bridge — and a new chapter of history — when he formed the Good Bridge 2000 Committee to support a 65-foot, fixed-span bridge.
It took nearly a decade and a ruling from an appeals court judge that he and fellow supporters won. Now, he’s convinced that, despite the bridge’s divisive history, it falls on the right side of history.
“To this day, people come up to all of us and say we were right and the bridge is a success,” Waters said. “We, and the community, have been vindicated by our effort to get the right bridge in the right place.”
Supporters and opponents of the 65-foot bridge still disagree about how effective the bridge has been in alleviating traffic and improving emergency-vehicle access — two of the top priorities during discussions.
But, there’s one thing no one seems to contest.
“I guess the bottom line is, it’s a gorgeous bridge,” said former Sarasota City Commissioner and Mayor Mollie Cardamone.
Cardamone’s time on the commission spanned from 1993 to 2001 — the years in which the Sarasota City Commission was battling the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) about the bridge.
She and other opponents of the bridge feel there’s public misconception about what they were fighting.
They thought a 45-foot-high drawbridge would address the transportation problems the city faced, while still allowing the tallest boats to pass under it.
At the same time, the city realized it might be fighting a losing battle, so it had the vision to hold a planning charette to create a concept for a signature bridge, should a 65-foot-high structure be inevitable.
“We didn’t fight that bridge,” Cardamone said. “We made that bridge happen.”
Parker remembers how, on at least two occasions, he drove north on U.S. 41, through Bradenton, and over the Cortez Bridge, to access the islands.
Traffic backups were inevitable, given that the drawbridge opened on the half-hour for boats. In the early 1990s, a series of breakdowns in which the bridge got stuck created both frustration and concerns about emergency access.
Island residents worried the bridge would get stuck during an emergency, meaning that an ambulance would have to drive through Longboat Key, to Blake Medical Center in Bradenton.
“The time required could be fatal,” said Marty Rappaport, chairman/leader of the St. Armands Business Improvement District, who became co-chairman and treasurer of the Good Bridge 2000 Committee after Waters made the case for a fixed-span bridge to him.
The Sarasota City Commission and Longboat Key Town Commission passed an informal resolution at a joint meeting in November 1992 to endorse a new bridge. But it wasn’t either commission’s decision to make.
FDOT is responsible for managing most bridges, including the Ringling Bridge, in the state.
The agency presented three options for the bridge during community meetings in early 1993: a 21-foot-high drawbridge that was identical to the current drawbridge; a 45-foot-high drawbridge; or a 65-foot-high, fixed-span bridge.
The Longboat Key Town Commission favored a 65-foot bridge largely because of residents’ concerns about emergency access. The Sarasota City Commission wanted a 45-foot bridge.
When Longboat residents chartered buses to attend hearings that were held at the Sarasota County Fairgrounds because public interest was so intense, Sarasota commissioners complained that Longboaters were trying to steer the process even though they wouldn’t bear the aesthetic impacts.
The Metropolitan Planning Organization board voted 10-4 in favor of the 65-foot, fixed-span bridge Nov. 22, 1993. It approved a $37 million bridge for completion in 2000. But the project was to stay dormant until 1997 to 1998 because funding wouldn’t be available until then.
Meanwhile, residents and officials began taking sides on the bridge.
Richard Storm and Piero Rivolta organized a group in the mid-1990s they called the Bridge Too High Committee — a name Rivolta now thinks might have been a misnomer.
Perhaps it should have been called the Wrong Bridge Committee, Rivolta said.
Rivolta was among many of the taller bridge’s opponents who believed the real solution to traffic woes was a bridge from the 10th Street area in Sarasota to Longboat Key.
“When you put a big bridge between St. Armands and U.S. 41, you can put 20 lanes, but traffic remains the same,” Rivolta said with a chuckle.
Rivolta and others believed that a bridge to Longboat could split traffic with a repaired drawbridge, providing a measure of relief.
But Waters, who served on the Sarasota commission from 1964 to 1968, believed a fixed-span bridge was the commonsense solution.
He bought an ad in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune that included a picture of a fixed-span bridge in St. Augustine and the headline “When will it be our turn?” along with a form for people to send their thoughts. Of the 553 responses, about 500 were opposed. So, Waters formed the Good Bridge 2000 Committee.
The committee would work to keep the pressure on FDOT to prevent the agency from moving the money to another county.
“After that,” he told the Longboat Observer in 2003, “the fight was on.”
From the time FDOT presented its first designs to the Sarasota City Commission in January 1996, it was clear that the two didn’t see eye-to-eye.
“The first design was a series of box girders,” Storm said. “We thought that was a shame.”
The “classical” design the agency proposed was a standard FDOT structure.
The commission-appointed Ringling Causeway Bridge Replacement Aesthetic Task Force came back with a design that was turquoise with champagne-glass support and a price tag that was $13 million more than FDOT’s budget.
The commission asked FDOT for a compromise: a 48-foot drawbridge that city staffers estimated would reduce bridge closings by 53%. FDOT rejected the proposal.
Looking back, Rappaport believes FDOT made a mistake in its approach with the city.
“It sort of made the city feel as if they didn’t have a say, and I think that’s what made five commissioners get kind of heated,” he said.
But Kerry Kirschner believed the city’s challenge was a waste of time.
Kirschner, a city commissioner from 1985 to 1991 who is now executive director of the Argus Foundation, wasn’t an outspoken advocate for the bridge, but says the city clearly didn’t have jurisdiction of the bridge.
FDOT told the city that it would no longer build drawbridges, but the commission took the attitude that the federal government was imposing its will upon the city, Kirschner said.
“It was very clear in the federal regulations that this wasn’t some whim that some federal bureaucrat imposed upon them,” he said.
In May 1998, the Sarasota City Commission filed a legal challenge of FDOT’s approval that the Bridge Too High Committee joined a month later. The suit alleged that FDOT started planning for the fixed-span bridge before the public-comment period ended. Waters and the Longboat Key Town Commission entered the lawsuit in support of FDOT.
But, even the Sarasota City Commission realized it might be fighting a losing battle. That’s why, in 1997, it organized a planning charette to ensure that if a 65-foot, fixed-span bridge were inevitable, it would be the best-designed 65-foot, fixed-span bridge possible.
They reached consensus for a “classic contemporary” bridge that would be the basis for the design of the new bridge.
FDOT ruled the city and the Bridge Too High Committee lacked legal standing for the challenge in January 2000, which paved the way for the agency to start the permitting process.
The First District Court of Appeals in Tallahassee affirmed the overall process leading up to the approval in April 2001.
FDOT hired PCL Civil Contractors for the two-and-a-half-year construction process. Rising costs of building materials and labor meant that what was originally supposed to be a $37 million bridge was now a $67 million project.
“This is still a lovely bridge,” Rappaport said. “But it ended up costing taxpayers twice as much.”
Rappaport didn’t attend the opening ceremonies that occurred Aug. 31, 2003, for that reason.
“I felt very strongly about standing on the same dais as the commissioners who wanted to take credit for all this who were against it all this time and cost the taxpayers so much more money to eventually say, ‘Look what we were able to do,’” he said.
Waters, however, was there. He smiled and waved to the crowd from a vintage car in which he rode over the bridge during a parade. He had been at the site throughout construction as the bridge went up in 50-foot pieces, but it was the first time he had driven over the bridge.
Sarasota and Longboat commissioners stood side-by-side in a ribbon-cutting ceremony before the bridge opened to traffic 16 days later.
A view of what’s to come
Here’s what will happen on an average day on the Ringling Bridge.
Approximately 41,250 drivers will use it to traverse Sarasota Bay.
By 5:30 a.m., there will be walkers and joggers squeezing in an early-morning workout.
At dusk, lights on the 31 poles that run along the bridge’s centerline will illuminate the bridge.
And the best views, according to Parker, will come 20 minutes after sunset.
When it comes to aesthetics and recreational value, even opponents of the 65-foot bridge give the Ringling Bridge high marks.
But when it comes to traffic and emergency access, opinion is still divided between the faction lines that are more than a decade old.
“It’s nice to walk on, but for traffic it doesn’t do a damn thing,” said Rivolta, pointing to traffic backups that still occur during peak season. “The whole thing was driven by short-minded big egos.”
Storm believes that reports of traffic backups during the drawbridge days were exaggerated. He thinks the city got half a solution — albeit a good-looking one.
“There’s still a considerable amount of traffic,” Storm said. “We didn’t think it made sense to spend an enormous amount of money on something that doesn’t solve the traffic problems.”
Kirschner, however, describes the difference as “night and day.”
He remembers when his wife worked at Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium. During season, she wouldn’t leave work until after 6 p.m. because of traffic.
“It’s part of the progression of economic development,” Kirschner said. “You just don’t create bottlenecks for people in transportation and other means to create a community.”
As the 10-year anniversary of the new bridge approaches, both sides agree they rarely hear anyone complain about the structure.
And they know that their neighbors to the north in Manatee County are probably paying close attention to the Ringling Bridge saga.
FDOT is in the public-hearing phase to determine the long-term future of the Cortez Bridge, which was built in 1956. It recently surveyed residents about whether they prefer a rebuild or replacement. The majority of Cortez and Bradenton Beach residents oppose a 65-foot bridge.
But Parker thinks the Ringling Bridge provides a model for other communities.
“There are similar issues,” he said. “There’s boat traffic and vehicular traffic, and it’s a conflict, and removing that conflict is a very good thing. But then turning it into the icon and the signature is an even better thing.”
150 million pounds — The weight of the bridge’s concrete
$68 million — FDOT’s overall budget for the bridge
9 million pounds — The approximate weight of the bridge’s cables
$1.5 million — The amount the city and private donors contributed for landscaping of the bridge
575,000 — The total hours of labor that went into building the bridge
200,000 pounds — The approximate weight of each segment of the bridge
41,250 — The average number of vehicles that cross the bridge daily
3,097 feet — The length of the bridge
107 feet — The width of the bridge
60 to 70 — The number of PCL employees who worked on the bridge during an average day of construction
28 — The number of months the construction process lasted
Bridge maintenance plan
Like any 10-year-old, the Ringling Bridge requires regular checkups to ensure its health.
Less like any 10-year-old, the Ringling Bridge needs six different people — and two boats — to perform those checkups.
In January, two teams of inspectors from the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) tackled the biennial task of inspecting the Ringling Bridge. Two inspectors, along with a lift-boat operator, went through the top parts of the bridge, including the superstructure, which supports the roadway. Below, two divers checked the larger support columns — part of the bridge’s substructure.
The final verdict: a clean bill of health. FDOT gave the bridge a 98.41 health-index rating, a tool the agency uses to measure the overall condition of a bridge. On the 100-point scale, an index below 85 is indicative of a bridge in need of some repairs, according to the FDOT website.
“The bridge is fairly new and is in excellent condition,” said FDOT spokeswoman Lauren Hatchell. “Typically, bridges have about a 70-year design lifespan.”
— David Conway
By the numbers
6 — Number of people it takes to perform a checkup on the Ringling Bridge.
98.41 — Health-index rating FDOT gave the bridge in January. Below 85 is indicative of a bridge needing repairs.
75 — Number of years the Ringling Bridge is expected to last.
2 — The bridge is inspected every two years.