Drivers from Arlington to the Beaches got a pleasant surprise Tuesday morning when the Florida Department of Transportation opened the Mathews Bridge before rush hour -- at least 12 hours before it was expected to open.
The westbound lanes of the bridge opened around 5:30 a.m. Tuesday, followed by the eastbound lanes. The bridge opening meets the goal before Florida-Georgia weekend.
The span has been closed since Sept. 26, when a Navy cargo ship under tow struck the bridge, shearing several bolts and dislodging a support beam.
"We're certainly glad the bridge is open," said state Rep. Lake Ray. "I think what you're looking at, basically DOT was not sure they were going to get everything done, equipment off and cleared. Plus, they wanted to do some last testing to make sure the stress for the bridge is good. So they're good about managing expectations for the bridge, making sure the citizens and everybody who wants to use the bridge weren't looking for it to be open, and it was delivered."
An emergency repair contract specified a 40-day deadline, but provided a $50,000-a-day incentive for opening the bridge early, but FDOT had asked its staff and contractors to work aggressively to open the bridge ahead of schedule.
"We brought in some of the most brilliant engineers for the project," FDOT engineer Will Watts said Tuesday on The Morning Show. "We are using modern-day materials, higher-strength steel, higher-strength bolts. It is actually a stronger connection than pre-impact."
"Even though DOT didn't announce the bridge reopening, it didn't take long for drivers to catch on and traffic was flowing across the bridge minutes after the barricades were removed.
While the bridge is fully open, there will be traffic interruptions during off hours for routine maintenance.
"We'll still see some closures over the weekend for painting, but that's something that for most of our traffic won't be a concern," said Ray.
Interviewed on Monday, FDOT spokesman Michael Goldman gave no hint the bridge would open earlier than Tuesday evening.
"They're doing weight testing," Goldman said. "We are not going to open up that bridge until we are 100 percent certain its safe for vehicles, and that means checking the weight on the bridge making sure it can handle traffic on it."
On Tuesday, Goldman said testing went on until the wee hours before the final decision was made the bridge was ready to open before rush hour.
"There are gauges up there that are monitoring the vibrations, and they will be up there for several weeks now that the bridge is open," Goldman said. "We had to make sure the bridge was functioning properly."
"They had over 10 miles of different wires that were testing the measurements of the stresses and strains on the bridge, that's the movement as loads were applied and as they continued to straighten it back out and put it in place," Ray said. "So they had all kinds of monitors, they had to put those together and make sure the bridge is safe."