Brooks Bridge in Fort Walton Beach is nearly 50 years old and in need of replacement. The issue will be the subject of a public forum hosted by the Florida Department of Transportation this Thursday evening at the Emerald Coast Convention Center. Multiple options are being considered.
Brooks Bridge was constructed back in the mid 1960’s, a 4-lane steel and concrete structure built to carry traffic along U.S. 98 over Santa Rosa Sound between downtown Fort Walton Beach and Okaloosa Island.
“It’s functionally obsolete, which means it’s still safe to drive on, but the way that it’s designed and the capacity that it carries, just does not function well enough in that area,” said Ian Satter, the spokesperson for the Florida Department of Transportation.
Although Brooks Bridge needs to be replaced, Satter says it won’t be any time soon, because the state is just getting started with a long-term review of options, “We are in the very early stages of what’s called our PD & E study where we’re looking at all of the factors that will be part of the decision for replacing the Brooks Bridge as well as studying the alternatives for what we call the Santa Rosa Sound Alternative Crossing, which is the secondary bridge that will be conducted while we also conduct the Brooks Bridge replacement study. Very early on in our PD & E study and we will look to do those over the next three to five years before they are complete.”
HDR Engineering Inc. was awarded the contract for the studies, which will be conducted simultaneously; but Satter says one won’t affect the other as far as determining whether that second bridge will be constructed, “As far as the secondary study for the Santa Rosa Sound Alternative Crossing we have to determine whether or not that bridge is even feasible to construct. At the end of the day when you look at Brooks Bridge will be replaced, and then that secondary bridge, the Santa Rosa Sound Alternative Crossing may or may not be constructed just based on, we have to determine that based on the findings from our PD & E study.”
Even though an alternate route across Santa Rosa Sound may be beneficial to the area, Ft. Walton Beach City Manager, Michael Beedie says financing it may pose an additional problem and the primary focus for the city should be on replacing Brooks Bridge, “You know you would have to try to get it on a funding list through the federal and state government, which right now is not within a ten or twenty year plan. While it could work, you know the city’s not going to have any funding. A toll bridge is not really the way to go. So, I think yeah it’s great they’re doing the study to see what the benefits of a second bridge would be, but really we’re worried about how the new Brooks Bridge is going to look and how it’s going to affect our downtown. “
Beedie says although the project is a coordinated effort there are still several aspects to be considered, “ City, DOT, the county, you know because Okaloosa Island is going to be effected because with the slope requirements, with the height requirements, I mean the landing of the bridge on Okaloosa Island, we don’t how far that’s going to be down Highway 98. So, there’s going to be effects on both sides of the bridge. “
Ft. Walton Beach Mayor, Mike Anderson agrees that Brooks Bridge is outdated and needs to be replaced. Anderson says he’s interested in the findings of the PD & E study and the clarification it will bring, on the new design standards for the bridge.
"It’s only 55 feet high, and the Coast Guard would prefer a 65 foot bridge for crossing Intracoastal Waterways. And currently has a 6 degree grade. The new standard prefers a 3 percent grade. Some of the structural engineers have suggested because as you’re going west as you get towards the bottom it curves a little bit, they think that is not a good design so they’re going to evaluate whether or not the replacement needs to be straightened. All those three things create design options.”
Mayor Anderson says it’s also important to consider whether or not the new replacement for Brooks Bridge will keep the city financially viable, “The 65 foot, is that because of commerce ships or what? Are we losing business in the Intracoastal Waterway because we don’t have a 65 foot bridge? Are we losing some economy there? If we are, is it just between here and Navarre, because, the Navarre bridge is only 55 foot high? Those are some questions that I think need to be answered as they do, not only engineering and environmental impacts, they need to look at the economic impact of these new standards. “
FDOT’s Ian Satter agrees that having all the information is key. Satter says the study will cover a wide range of aspects including business and residential statistics and traffic and safety data. Apart from the various impacts, he says utilizing Brooks Bridge is a way of life in Ft. Walton Beach that keeps locals and tourists connected, “It 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 to be able to travel and that bridge is a key component to being able to get on to the island. Without it, people have to take the long way around. So, we do know that that bridge is critical to that area; it’s a life line for them. And we need to make sure that as we conduct the study and we come up with the final alternative for the new bridge, for Brooks Bridge that it works with people who live there. It’s going to be able to accommodate traffic not only in the near future but over the next 20-30 years.”
Getting the public‘s input is an important part of the long project and development process scheduled to wrap up in 2018. And, the next opportunity for residents to weigh-in is Thursday, April 23rd at 5:30pm at the Emerald Coast Convention Center.