Saturday, April 6, 2013

Court order for bridge reports possible – Commissioner wants info public if county takes over old span

If the Monroe County Commission agrees to take control of the Old Seven Mile Bridge, Commissioner Danny Kolhage will request the county also seek a court order declassifying inspection reports for the structure.

The bridge is now maintained by the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), which has agreed to pay half of $18 million in renovations to the bridge if the county takes it over and maintains it.

In recent weeks, Kolhage has spearheaded an effort to make FDOT release to the public a series of inspection reports on the Old Seven Mile Bridge.

County commissioners have seen the reports but are unable to make them public because the Department of Homeland Security deemed portions “classified.”

FDOT also refused to release the reports to The Citizen, citing security concerns, FDOT spokesman Brian Rick said.

“Bridge inspection reports contain information related to the physical security of the structures,” Rick wrote in an email to The Citizen. “This information is confidential and exempt from public inspection.

At the last County Commission meeting, Kolhage and Commissioner Heather Carruthers said the inspection reports show some structural issues and problems, but they did not go into detail. They are both concerned about the proposal to take possession of the bridge and be responsible for its ongoing maintenance.

Kolhage questioned why the reports are classified, as the bridge is no longer used for automobile traffic.

State statute allows the county to take FDOT to court in an effort to make the reports public, Kolhage said.

“If FDOT wants Monroe County to spend millions of taxpayer dollars and take on responsibility of a 100-year-old bridge, the public has a right to know the full condition of the bridge,” Kolhage said Thursday.

He wants the reports reviewed by county engineers or a county-contracted private engineering firm to determine the exact condition of the bridge below the water line.

Kolhage asked the County Attorney’s Office to research the issue to determine whether the classified status could change, including allowing engineers to review the inspection reports.

On top of the $18 million renovation cost, the annual cost of maintaining the Old Seven Mile Bridge would be about $70,000 a year, plus $3.5 million every 10 years to paint it, County Administrator Roman Gastesi said.

The county would have to set aside about $420,000 a year to cover the annual costs and save for the 10-year paint job.

Carruthers and Kolhage are concerned that those costs could rise, as FDOT did not include costs for work below the water line.

The two commissioners are also concerned that the project is being fast-tracked.

The minutes from a Feb. 25 meeting of the nonprofit group Friends of Old Seven show that County Mayor George Neugent, Commissioners Sylvia Murphy and David Rice and FDOT representative Dennis Fernandez attended.

Fernandez is quoted in the minutes as saying the “first of several draft agreements have been prepared, including one between FDOT and an engineering consultant to design the bridge restoration work and another between FDOT and Monroe County for the actual transferal of ownership of the bridge.”

The minutes also state the county would responsible for the renovation of the Pigeon Key ramp, which would cost $500,000.

Carruthers was upset.

“I am furious that an ILA (inter-local agreement) has been drafted,” she said.

“It is way too premature to be going down this road … . People are making decisions before this has been properly vetted.”

At the March County Commission meeting, commissioners gave the county administrator the go-ahead to investigate spending county taxpayer money to renovate the bridge, but not approval to move forward with the actual renovations yet.