The largest public infrastructure project in the history of Northwest Florida is off to a big start, with staging and preliminary construction to replace the 57-year-old Pensacola Bay Bridge already beginning.
On the banks of Bayou Chico west of downtown Pensacola, towering cranes have arrived, becoming part of the skyline as preparations are underway along the eastern shore of the waterfront.
Skanska USA is the contractor on the $400 million mega-project, which is one of the largest public infrastructure projects in Florida’s history. The company was chosen in 2016 during a competitive bid process over several other national and international firms to design and build the bridge.
The Florida Department of Transportation is the agency in charge of the project that is expected to last through 2020. FDOT said work at the site of the new bridge is expected to get started within the next few weeks.
“The initial roadway work, such as clearing and grubbing and construction zone signage installation is currently scheduled to begin late this month,” said Ian Satter, FDOT Public Information Director. “The driving of test piles is currently slated to begin in April or May.”
Those test piles, along with the hundreds of permanent pilings for the new bridge, will be built at Skanska’s Bayou Chico facility, which encompasses more than 30 acres of former shipyards, much of which has sat vacant for decades.
“Skanska has a concrete casting facility that is under development at Bayou Chico,” Satter said. “All pilings — test and production — will be fabricated there, along with the needed I-Beams for the spans of the bridge, the pi-girders that will be used for the shared-use path, and the so-called “trophy pieces” consisting of the footings, columns, and caps for the low level piers and upper portions of the high level piers.”
FDOT and Skanska officials stated they will soon have more than 200 employees at the casting facility alone, with hundreds more working at the bridge site on Pensacola Bay.
Last year, officials had hoped to utilize the Port of Pensacola for the concrete plant and fabrication of the bridge sections. Those hopes were dashed when concerns over access to the port arose, according to port officials.
“We were in discussions to pre-bid to bring some operations here,” said Clark Merritt, Economic Development Manager for the Port of Pensacola. “Logically we are closest to project and we were really optimistic.”
Merritt said during discussions with Skanska last year, the company had concerns over how barges would access the proposed staging area at the port.
“The straw that killed the deal was that they needed access to Pensacola Bay from the proposed storage area,” Merritt said. “A permitted dredge spoil site that we have at the port prohibited it…logistics just didn’t work out.”
FDOT officials said that in addition to the Bayou Chico site, the Wayside Park in Gulf Breeze and a portion of the Pensacola Wayside Park will be used for staging of construction equipment.
“At this time the only locations planned for staging of equipment are the wayside park areas in Gulf Breeze east and west of U.S. 98 and the western side wayside park in Pensacola,” Satter said.
Satter said the east side of the Pensacola park will remain open during construction, including the popular fishing pier.
“The fishing pier is planned to remain operational after the new bridge is constructed,” Satter added. “With the closure of the areas this month, materials and equipment will begin being delivered and staged.”
Constructed in 1960, the current Pensacola Bay Bridge will remain fully open to traffic until the first span of the new bridge is completed in early 2019. Once traffic from the old bridge is moved to the new span, construction crews will demolish the existing bridge and compete construction of the second structure.
According to Skanska’s contract with FDOT, the company will earn a $15 million bonus if all traffic from the old bridge is placed on the first completed bridge by January 2019.
FDOT officials said all construction work is scheduled for completion in mid-2020. When complete, each of the two structures will be configured for three travel lanes, flanked by inside and outside shoulders, and a multi-use path.
Separately from the construction of the bridge, major changes could be coming to the bridge landing in Pensacola at the intersection of U.S. 98 and 17th Avenue. Those changes include a large roundabout and elevated flyover.
FDOT hopes those proposed improvements could aid in traffic congestion caused by the intersection and could add another architectural element in addition to the features included on the new bridge, including the bridge’s center arch, lighting, and covered observation points.
Funding and construction of that project has not yet been determined.