Sanibel Causeway repairs, Cape Coral bridge replacement discussed by Lee commissioners
Lee County commissioners met for a workshop earlier this week to discuss plans for building stronger Sanibel Causeway and Cape Coral bridges.
Multiple sections of the Sanibel Causeway were swept away by Hurricane Ian’s storm surge. The causeway was temporarily repaired just three weeks after Ian hit.
“I certainly am advocating for every aspect that we can to make this as resilient as possible,” Commissioner Kevin Ruane said. “I don’t think that anyone wants to go through what we’re going through.”
Madison Franz of Fort Myers has always lived within 10 minutes of Sanibel.
“I was shocked that something that had been there for my entire life was destroyed so quickly,” Franz said.
She remembers her panic when she received cell service after Hurricane Ian passed, but she couldn’t get hold of her loved ones on the island.
“I remember feeling so helpless when no one was picking up,” Franz said. “And I remember feeling so heartbroken for the people that call Sanibel home. I hope that Lee County considers the safety and voice of its residents before anything else. Specifically, I hope they ask residents of Sanibel for their feedback and input as they rebuild."
FDOT’s proposed timeline for the upgraded Sanibel Causeway is one year. The cumulative cost for this project is just over $285 million. Commissioners plan to seek federal infrastructure funds to pay most of the cost. This would bring Lee County’s share of the bill to about $51.6 million.
The resiliency components that FDOT would like to add are gabion baskets, raised profile grade, buried sheet pile wall, rip rap large boulders, box culvert, and seagrass and mitigation. Gabion baskets are composed of rocks held in place by wire. Ruane expressed his support for the resiliency measures. Most are designed to protect the bridge in high waves, and keep it from washing away in a storm.
Anna Loremas visited Sanibel Island countless times before moving to Buffalo, New York. She frequently visits Lee County since her move and has fond memories of Sanibel Island.
"I did not personally experience the hurricane, but I still feel tremendous sadness watching videos or seeing photos of the aftermath,” Loremas said. “Although the cleanup continues to be a work in progress, I have hope in the community that it can hopefully be restored to its full beauty.”
The commissioners also discussed the plans for the Cape Coral Bridge that connects to Fort Myers.
“The reason we’re replacing these bridges is they’ve met their useful life,” Lee Transportation Director Randy Cerchie said. “Each year, I take a look at the bridge maintenance program. We have $130,000 to $150,000, $180,000 the next year, $200,000 the next year to maintain these bridges.”
The first alternative is to widen the eastbound span and replace the westbound bridge. This would give the eastbound bridge 35 more years and the westbound 75 years. The total cost would be just over $198 million.
The second alternative is to replace both eastbound and westbound bridges. This would increase the life span of both bridges to 75 years. The cost would come to about $218.6 million.
“They would build the new eastbound bridge south of the existing two bridges,” Cerchie said. “They’re wide enough, we have enough lanes on those now and emergency lanes and pedestrian facilities to accommodate all four lanes of traffic on that new structure. They demolish the two existing bridges at that point in time and then build new westbound span there with 20 feet between them.”
The difference between the two plans would be $20.4 million. The county plan is to seek federal infrastructure funds for this project as well.
Transportation officials said the planning, design and engineering of the Cape bridge would be done by late 2024. At that time, the county would do a toll rate study.
All five commissioners indicated they favor the second alternative. They said the longevity and long-term savings of the bridge are worth the bigger price tag.
“We’re probably always going to be paying for a bridge improvement in Cape Coral, and that’s what those bridge tolls pay for,” Commissioner Chairman Brian Hamman said.
It's estimated that a new or revamped Cape Coral Bridge would be completed in 2029.
“When we know better, we do better,” Madison Franz of Fort Myers said. “Now that we know what a storm like Ian can do, it’s important we do better and rebuild stronger than ever before.”
This story was produced by Hayley Lemery, a student-journalist in Democracy Watch, a news service provided by Florida Gulf Coast University journalism students. The reporter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org