JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Damage to a finger joint on the southbound side of the Buckman Bridge forced a shutdown of I-295 SB Thursday morning in the heart of rush hour, creating a traffic nightmare for commuters trying to get across the St. Johns River.
⚠️UPDATE⚠️: SB lanes of the Buckman Bridge have REOPENED to traffic. A temporary repair is in place that will allow vehicles to travel safely over the bridge. A more permanent repair will be scheduled in the coming weeks. https://t.co/WJwLKEcmj8 pic.twitter.com/hcUjF8sekm— News4JAX (@wjxt4) May 27, 2021
News4Jax was told at 11:30 a.m. that one southbound lane would be reopening on the bridge within minutes. Hours later that still had not happened. The entire southbound side of the bridge finally reopened to traffic at 3:20 p.m. -- ahead of the evening rush hour and just about eight hours after they closed.
FHP Sgt. Dylan Bryan said troopers got a call Thursday morning about possible damage toward the top of the span of the Buckman Bridge. He said one of the segments of the bridge had reportedly lifted slightly at one of the expansion joints, causing slight damage to the roadway.
Florida Department of Transportation inspectors were called to the scene and the side of the bridge connecting Orange Park commuters to Mandarin was shut down.
“Obviously on the side of caution, we went ahead and summoned professional assistance from the engineering crew, not only of the construction company but also of the Department of Transportation bridge inspection team to be en route to inspect this damage,” Bryan said.
After the bridge was closed for safety, cars stuck between the U.S. 17 exit and the bridge were turned around on the highway, with law enforcement directing them through the grass median onto the northbound side of the highway.
Once traffic was detoured, a car sitting on the southbound side of the Buckman was also turned around and escorted off the bridge.
Bryan said Thursday morning that the inspection was expected to last several hours, during which the southbound side of the bridge would remain closed.
“It’s one of the largest thoroughfares through our area. We know this is going to drastically increase commuter times and issues for drivers trying to get to their places of choice,” Bryan said. “We do understand that it’s a huge inconvenience to the motoring public. Obviously, the last thing we wanted to do is to cause this type of inconvenience.
“But we wanted to err on the side of caution and make sure the roadway is safe to travel. Once we get that clearance we’ll have it open as quickly as possible.”
Video from Marine 4 under the Buckman Bridge showed FDOT workers doing repairs on what appeared to be a connecting spot on the bridge between two spans.
FIXING THE BRIDGE: Marine 4 captured crews working on the Buckman Bridge this morning. You can see sparks fly as they try to fix a span of the bridge that had been lifted slightly at a joint, reports say. https://t.co/WJwLKEcmj8 pic.twitter.com/HsoCzm48st— News4JAX (@wjxt4) May 27, 2021
Florida Department of Transportation spokesman Hampton Ray said the repairs were being made to a damaged finger joint, which is an expansion joint on the bridge. Those joints provide support to vehicles and protect steel supports on the bridge from debris.
Ray said crews were treating the repairs as routine bridge maintenance and placed metal plates on the bridge from one outside lane to the other to safely secure it in the interim for drivers so that lanes could be reopened.
“You’ve probably driven over them before and don’t even realize it,” Ray said.
TRAVEL ADVISORY UPDATE: Temporary repairs are currently taking place on the southbound side of the Buckman Bridge. Southbound lanes are expected to reopen this afternoon. Additional, more permanent repairs are expected to take place in the future. pic.twitter.com/hPRT7tEWYF— FDOT District 2 (@MyFDOT_NEFL) May 27, 2021
“We will not reopen the structure until we are absolutely certain that our bridge is safe,” Ray said. “We will never knowingly put people in an unsafe position.”
He said crews responded in force from as far away as Gainesville and St. Augustine.
“We have people that have dedicated their entire lives to safety, structural engineers who review the structures to make sure that every standard is met,” Ray said.
Ray said long-term, FDOT doesn’t anticipate having to shut down the bridge again to make permanent repairs. He said the long-term fix can be accomplished with lane closures without having to shut down the entire southbound side of the bridge again.
“We don’t anticipate a full detour of the structure,” Ray said.
He said they are still investigating what caused the damage to the finger joint.
During the shutdown, traffic was forced to reroute either south to State Road 16 across the Shands Bridge or north to I-95 across the Fuller Warren Bridge to cross the St. Johns River.
In front of a Museum off SR 16, Jim Mortimer said his team got a bit busy as well.
“We usually get visitors that want to come in and see stuff in the museum. Today we’re getting visitors that want to use the restroom and they’re desperate,” Mortimer said. “It’s been non-stop. I got here at 9 and I was lucky it wasn’t this bad, but it’s been picking up all day.”
Marine 4 caught a view of traffic backed up on the much smaller Shands Bridge, which runs from southern Clay County across the river into St. Johns County.
The Clay County Sheriff’s Office said there was very heavy traffic in Clay County from the Shands Bridge in Green Cove Springs down Highway 17 to Orange Park. Drivers were urged to avoid the area.