Recent storms prompt bridge closure discussion in PCB

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“It used to be 55 miles per hour (before bridge closures),” State Rep. Jay Trumbull said, but “they have continued to drop that.”

JOHN HENDERSON News Herald Reporter @PCNHJohn

PANAMA CITY — Bay County officials are trying to get a clear answer from state officials about why the wind-speed threshold for closing local bridges dropped significantly during recent storms.

The county previously did not close high-profile bridges — the Hathaway, Dupont, Bailey and West Bay bridges — until wind speeds reached 55 mph, but as Hurricane Irma approached, state officials said 40 mph winds would prompt closures.

The decision caused much confusion as hurricanes Irma and Nate approached the region recently. In fact, county officials said they received more calls from residents about the bridges than any other storm-related concern.

“It used to be 55 miles per hour (before bridge closures),” State Rep. Jay Trumbull said, but “they have continued to drop that.”

County officials recently expressed their concerns to Trumbull and Gov. Rick Scott, both of whom said they would look into it.

“We also need to look at it on a case-by-case basis,” Trumbull said, pointing out that the bridge openings are critical for local residents. “Panama City Beach is an island. There is not a way to get on or off of Panama City Beach without crossing a bridge.”

County leaders said in years past, state officials said bridges would remain open until sustained winds — an average of wind speed over two minutes straight — were at 55 miles per hour or greater.

But when county officials asked for the policy in writing, the day before Irma hit Bay County as a tropical storm, they got an answer that surprised them. On Sept. 10, the Florida Department of Transportation forwarded a press release from the Florida Highway Patrol saying sustained winds of more than 40 mph would prompt the closure of high-profile bridges.

County Commissioner Robert Carroll, an engineer, said he believes the Hathaway Bridge is constructed well enough to stay open in winds up to 55 mph. He said he would like local control over this issue, and that it is critical the bridges in Bay County aren’t unnecessarily closed.

“What if someone needs medical attention?” he said.

Lt. Eddie W. Elmore, public affairs officer for FHP’s Troop A Headquarters, said in an email that the FHP welcomes the conversation and will listen to the concerns of county officials.

“The safety for the motoring public was our concern,” he wrote.

Elmore said FHP and FDOT come together and decide on speed for the bridges to be evaluated for closure, writing, “We have the public safety as priority when making these decisions.”

He also said the age of the bridge does not a play a role in determining wind speed, but the traffic traversing it is the safety issue.

“The gust(s) of winds are our concern as well,” he said. “When the sustained winds of 40 miles per hour has been reached, then the gust can be significantly higher as well. The vehicles such as semi-trucks and box trucks are significantly affected.”

Ian Satter, a spokesperson for FDOT, said FHP decides the sustained wind-speed number for bridge closings, but enforcement of the law falls partially to the county.

“The bridge closes down at the determination of law enforcement, whether that is the Highway Patrol or the sheriff’s department,” Satter said.

Assistant County Manager Joel Schubert said in the past month, the county had to combat a lot of misinformation spread through social media about possible bridge closures, which never happened. He said even if the policy is to close bridges at 40 miles per hour sustained winds, that would take quite a storm — “We’d have had to have been on the (powerful) side of Irma to start feeling something like that.”

He said Bay County would simply like the state to look at each bridge individually when determining what wind speeds it would take to close them down.

“Obviously, we’re different than the Keys, for example,” he said. “We’d like them to consider the engineering of each specific bridge, construction, locale obviously.”

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