As the tally of aging bridges and infrastructure across the Gulf Coast rises, Okaloosa County’s Brooks Bridge, and its replacement, face an uncertain future.
For the last quarter century, residents and leaders in Okaloosa County have been trying to come up with a plan to replace one of the Gulf Coast’s oldest and most deficient bridges, the John T. Brooks Bridge spanning Fort Walton Beach and Okaloosa Island. The bridge is among several key bridges spanning the Santa Rosa Sound – all built in the middle-half of the 20th Century – connecting the coastal communities along the Gulf Coast and the millions of residents and travelers who utilize them every year. It’s more than half a century old, and the state says it needs to be replaced.
Several studies have taken place in the past 25 years to plan for the bridge’s replacement but the community remains divided on how and where to build it. Okaloosa County residents recently got a look at the Florida Department of Transportation’s latest plans for replacement of the bridge at a public forum in Okaloosa County. It’s still early in the renewed effort to build a new bridge, but yet again there’s controversy surrounding the bridge, why its replacement is such a big deal, and the future of the Highway 98 corridor in Okaloosa County.
According to the Florida Department of Transportation, the replacement of Brooks Bridge is needed in order to address the structural deficiencies of the existing bridge, which is currently rated as being “structurally deficient” by the FDOT, which means repairs or replacement is required within the next six years, according to FDOT standards. The current Brooks Bridge actually replaced a 1930s-era swing-style bridge of the same name, named for John Thomas Brooks, who settled at Brooks Landing (present day Fort Walton Beach) after the Civil War. The current bridge was constructed in 1964 with an expected 50-year service life and was not intended to carry the volume of traffic it carries today. It doesn’t meet today’s standards for roadway and bridge design, nor current ADA requirements for pedestrians and bicycles because of its steep grade. Additionally, the existing bridge crosses the Intracoastal Waterway, which is required to be navigable by U.S. Coast Guard regulations. The current bridge’s vertical clearance of 50 feet does not meet the U.S Coast Guard’s requirement of 65 feet.
People have been talking about replacing the bridge since the late 1980s, but there’s been endless debate over how to do it. The Fort Walton Beach Bridge Authority was established in 1990 to study the replacement of the bridge, then only 25 years old. The first public vote on the proposed way forward for the new bridge was met with 84% of city residents rejecting a proposed toll bridge, which led to the dissolution of the FWBBA in the 1990s. A decade later, the Emerald Coast Bridge Authority was established with a renewed effort and presented three bridge corridors to the public – at Hollywood Boulevard north of downtown, west of the existing bridge at Wright Street or building a new bridge along the existing corridor. The City of Ft. Walton Beach opposed any toll bridge proposal, which then too resulted in the ECBA becoming dormant.
While the FDOT has made the need for a replacement bridge clear since the dissolution of the two bridge authorities, they have steered clear of design specifics, with FDOT Secretary Ananth Prasad commenting that, “FDOT cannot decide what (a new bridge) looks like. The community needs to develop consensus on that. The bridge has to be replaced, or that it will eventually get to the point where it is no longer safe for travel.”
To get things moving again, FDOT allocated more than $2 million this year to conduct two different studies to be undertaken by HDR Engineering, who previously designed the Hoover Dam Bridge. The firm will look at the feasibility of building a new bridge along the existing corridor and an alternate Santa Rosa Sound Alternate Crossing. The announcement this year of the studies has renewed controversy of where a new bridge – or two bridges – will be built and there seems to be two sides to the debate.
On one side, residents and community leaders propose building two bridges, one replacing the current bridge along the existing corridor and another bypassing downtown Fort Walton Beach, rerouting traffic from before the entrance to downtown to Santa Rosa Island. On the other side, anchored heavily by Okaloosa Island residents and condo owners, community members wish to see only the current bridge replaced along the same location.
Regarding which side is right, well, it’s not that simple. The people who support the Santa Rosa Sound alternate bridge say it will ease congestion on Highway 98, will allow downtown Fort Walton Beach to thrive by allowing increased pedestrian and cyclist traffic and will provide for an alternate evacuation route in the event of a hurricane. The single bridge replacement supporters say building another bridge west of the current span to Santa Rosa Island would increase traffic on Santa Rosa Blvd., diminish the quality of life for residents and be too costly for the community to bear.
Rerouting traffic via an alternate crossing to Santa Rosa Island would not be unprecedented in terms of roadway capacity and neighborhood impact. Santa Rosa Boulevard measures wider than the downtown Highway 98 thoroughfare to the Brooks Bridge and includes a continuous median and four lanes through the entirety of Santa Rosa Blvd. Additionally, most condos have an average setback of 150 feet from the roadway and would not experience any increase in noise. There are, however, a few dozen residential properties abutting the north side of the roadway that could experience higher traffic noise if an alternate bridge was built, unless noise-reducing soundwalls or landscaping were built. Further, there are about 20 residential intersections along each side of the roadway that could pose a potential impact to traffic without the addition of stoplights along the span of roadway, of which none currently exist on Santa Rosa Boulevard.
Both of the studies are scheduled to wrap up in 2017 and will include public comment periods, with a community advisory group being formed for citizens to have their opinions and perspectives heard by FDOT. The findings and recommendations of the studies will be sent to the Federal Highway Administration for approval. Once FHWA’s approval is received, FDOT will advance other phases including design, land purchasing (if necessary) and construction as funding becomes available.
FDOT’s Ian Satter agrees that having all the information is key to the bridge debate. “The Brooks Bridge gets people to work, it gets people to school, it gets people who are here visiting to be able to come down to that area. That bridge is a key component to being able to get on the island. Without it, people have to take the long way around. That bridge is critical to the area; it’s a lifeline for them.”
This story is part of an ongoing series that looks at aging bridges and public infrastructure along the Gulf Coast.