Over the years traffic increased on the bridge. The bridge became a necessary nuisance to drivers who generated concerns and controversy about the safety of the bridge. It reached a point where in 2000 the rock band Limp Bizkit, which originated in Jacksonville, wrote a song “My Generation” which mentioned the Mathews Bridge. Limp Bizkit let its nationwide audience know that people feared driving over the bridge, and it was a popular place to jump off and commit suicide.
The bridge was built with no emergency safety lanes and an 800 foot metal grating in between concrete roadway segments. The grating was built to reduce construction of a solid concrete roadway surface. Emergency lanes weren’t commonly built on bridges designed in the 1940s and 1950s. That lack of foresight contributed to traffic congestion since it was (and still is) difficult to clear the roadway following accidents. About 62,500 vehicles per day in each direction use the Mathews. The two-way count on the nearby Hart Bridge is about 35,000 vehicles daily.
In 1999, the FDOT spent about $3 million to replace the original grating which was wearing out. Drivers complained about the new grating saying it was slippery and causing accidents. The Times-Union in 2003 reported that the Mathews had seven times more accidents than the nearby Hart Bridge even though the Mathews had only 52 percent more traffic. There were fatalities and lawsuits.
The FDOT in 2006 spent $90,000 to scoff up the grating to add more traction. That didn’t work and complaints continued and became political. The Jacksonville City Council passed a resolution asking the FDOT to replace the grating with a concrete riding surface.
In 2007, the FDOT spent about $13 million to replace the grating with solid concrete. While the end result was successful and reduced fears about using the bridge, the construction process was painful. It required directional closings and detours, including diverting traffic through the overly congested Atlantic and University boulevard intersection. It became increasingly evident the Hart Bridge couldn’t capably handle the extra and reinforced the need for a functional Mathews Bridge.
More pain came to motorists in 2011 when the FDOT gave the bridge a $23 million overhaul with structural repairs and fresh paint. It meant more closures and detours and more traffic pressures on the University and Atlantic boulevard intersection and Hart Bridge.
The project was progressing on satisfactorily until high wind gusts from Tropical Storm Beryl in July 2016 tore out 16 percent of the platforms needed for workmen to safely repair and repaint the bridge. That required several days of full bridge closings and detours.
Amid the repair project, a ship hit the bridge in September 2013, shutting it down for nearly a month and opening just before the Florida/Georgia football game. Motorists again faced delays, detours and frustrations during the $4 million repair project. The bridge hit could have been catastrophic. Had the bridge hit occurred several feet away from the point of impact or had the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office not immediately closed the bridge to traffic, loss of life could have occurred. Miraculously, there were no injuries or reported vehicle damages.
“It was precarious,” said Joe Debs, executive vice president of RS&H, Inc. which designed the bridge in the 1950s and subsequently worked on a variety of maintenance and study projects for the Mathews, including the emergency plan for repairing the bridge after the ship impact. “It almost came down. It was very close to being a huge disaster.”
Debs said there was no textbook or precedent for repairing the bridge. Through emergency FDOT funding and expediting contracting, construction and bid procedures, the bridge reopened 34 days after ship impact which Debs said “was a remarkable accomplishment.” About 200 individuals from state and private entities were part of the repair team.
Debs has a personal and professional interest in the Mathews. He moved to Arlington in 1956. His father ran a grocery store at Florida Avenue and 5th Street and drove over the bridge daily.
The Mathews Bridge frustrations were long a concern of former Mayor John Delaney who graduated from Terry Parker High School in Arlington. Mayor from 1995 to 2003, Delaney convinced voters in 2000 to approve a Better Jacksonville Plan (BJP) one-half cent sales tax increase to fund an estimated $2.25 billion in public improvements including new roads, a ball park, arena, downtown library, courthouse and other projects. Included was $20 million towards a new Mathews Bridge to be spent on right of way purchases and design of the project. The money could not be spent until the FDOT decided what was needed.
The BJP allowed funds for project feasibility studies. About $3.3 million of BJP funds had been spent for studies for a new eight-lane bridge and needed improvements to the Arlington Expressway and other roads leading to the Mathews. The studies included a thorough analysis of bridge improvements and alternatives, examining the roadway corridor along State and Union streets from I-95 to Regency Square, traffic studies and determining property parcels which would be purchased to fit specific alternatives for a new bridge.
The estimates in 2004 showed $700 million was needed to build a new eight-lane bridge, including a projected $100 million to purchase right-of-way for the wider river crossing. The study estimated $325 million for a new four-lane bridge constructed next to the existing Mathews and safety improvements to the old structure which FDOT inspection studies show is still structurally sound. The $700 million estimate also included needed changes to the interchanges adjacent to the sports complex and redoing and improving the Arlington Expressway and the interchange at University Boulevard and the Mathews Bridge Expressway.
“I’m sure it’s a $1 billion project today,” Debs said.
But now, a new or expanded bridge isn’t on the radar screen. The North Florida Transportation Planning Organization has no timetable about if or when a new or improved Mathews Bridge will be considered. Partially due to the high cost estimates of the Mathews, Debs said big ticket transportation priorities shifted to finishing and widening the I-295 Beltway to accommodate port traffic along the St. Johns River.
“The key to the Mathews Bridge is our community and transportation leaders need to be aware of the timeline for implementing a project of this magnitude,” Debs said. “It needs to be an active discussion. We don’t want to wait until the public is demanding the replacement of the bridge.”
In a repeat of history, due to high costs tolls again would be part of the financing discussion for the Mathews. Debs believes a public/private partnership could be the impetus for a new Mathews. The growth of downtown Jacksonville, a major development requiring a new Mathews and increased population density could all be part of that stimulus, he says. With a financing plan in place, a new bridge could be designed and built in six years, depending on drainage, right-of-way and permitting issues.
So while waiting for the next John E. Mathews, Sr. to emerge to advocate a new bridge, drivers will continue to painfully grin and bear its trials and tribulations.
Article by Mike Goldman