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PCL Civil Constructors placed a palm tree on the last segment of the bridge as it was hoisted into place, symbolizing the firm had completed the project.
Sarasota Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013 4 years ago

The Bridge: Ten years later, controversy is 'water under the bridge'

by: Nolan Peterson News Editor

A picture of the the John Ringling Causeway Bridge hangs in Brett Kermode’s family room. The 18-by-24-inch framed photograph — a gift from his wife — shows the bridge from the air, its sidewalks full of runners and walkers enjoying the dual 10-foot wide sidewalks that Kermode labored to engineer for more than three years. Kermode has other framed photographs of the bridge scattered around his home and office; reminders of a project that, despite its up and downs, ended up uniting more than just the mainland to the islands.

“I look back on that project as one of the best I ever worked,” said Kermode, an engineer for PCL Civil Constructors and a former project manager for the Ringling Bridge project. “We went from a divided community that had its doubts to one of the biggest celebrations I’ve ever seen to dedicate a bridge.”

|Ten years after the bridge’s completion, those involved in the design and construction of the Sarasota landmark agree that despite the controversy and debate surrounding the bridge’s conception and construction, the end result was one that everyone could live with — and one with which most are still happy.

“Everyone in the community was thrilled with the way the bridge turned out,” said Donald Blivas, a Sarasota architect who led the effort to tap the community for input on the bridge’s design. “But it’s too bad that it took five years of fighting to get the bridge we wanted.”

Blivas was instrumental in the way the Ringling Bridge looks today. Not because he designed it, but because he fought back against what was originally proposed.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers originally planned on an “off-the-shelf” bridge design, Blivas explained. In an effort to preserve the architectural heritage of Sarasota, Blivas lobbied the Sarasota City Commission with his newly formed nonprofit, the Foundation for Excellence in Architecture, to lead a community effort to come up with a better design. Blivas formed an alliance with Eugene Figg, a world-renowned bridge designer based out of Tallahassee, to facilitate a design charette to tap the community for its input. The outcome was a set of parameters and design considerations that the state then presented to firms bidding for the project.

Despite the community’s involvement in the design process, the bridge was mired in controversy long before the first piling was ever dug in Sarasota Bay. The project stalled before the Sarasota City Commission for nearly five years due to residents’ myriad of concerns, including the bridge’s dimensions, its effect on the Sarasota skyline, traffic congestion coming on and off Bird Key and, of course, its cost.

“I remember people were concerned about whether it would be physically possible to walk over the bridge,” Blivas said. “There was a lot of misinformation spread. People on Lido were scared the bridge would come down in their backyards.”

Blivas said that while the debate about the bridge raged at City Hall, the cost of the project ballooned from $32 million to $62 million, and Figg’s vision for the project was clouded.

“It was not quite the bridge that (Figg) envisioned,” Blivas said. “The foolishness of the people who opposed the bridge kept it from being the world-class bridge it could have been.”

Although state requirements for the bridge guided Kermode, the Manatee County native said he remained faithful to the community’s vision and addressed concerns as they arose.

“We knew it was a hot topic,” Kermode said. “But we also wanted to build what the community wanted.”

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The bridge design proposed unique challenges. The plans called for a smooth, seamless bottom slab for aesthetic purposes and a 107-foot-wide top deck to accommodate four traffic lanes and two 10-foot-wide sidewalks.

The engineering solution was to cast two massive concrete slabs in Manatee County and then float the segments from Port Manatee to the bridge site.

“It was a real challenge,” Kermode said. “At the time, it was the world’s widest segmental bridge.”

Kermode’s crew was able to complete construction in 969 days, one day short of the 970 days they were contracted for — even with a 100-day pause for an engineering gaffe.

“We had some struggles, but we pulled together and had a good time,” Kermode said.

Kermode said he holds special memories tied the project, including taking a day off to watch the Fourth of July boat races from the bridge, eating lunch at Hart’s Landing and watching President George W. Bush drive over the old Ringling Bridge on his way to Booker Elementary School the morning of the 9/11 attacks.

“I grew up here,” Kermode said. “My dad remembers rabbit hunting on Longboat. I worked all over the country, and to have the opportunity to move back home and work on the bridge and see how the community fell in the love with it — that was special for me.”

Blivas said the community’s ultimate embrace of the bridge was the final answer to its critics.

“Most of the opposition voices were silenced once the bridge was completed,” Blivas said. “It became a great thing for Sarasota, and I haven’t heard anything negative about it.”

The picture hanging in Kermode’s family room is a reminder that, despite divided opinions, Sarasota ultimately embraced, and fell in love with, its newest landmark.

“You better remember this,” Kermode recalled telling his crew the day of the bridge’s dedication ceremony, “because you won’t see this kind of celebration on other jobs.”

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