Community Impact: The Story of the New Pensacola Bay Bridge

In 2010, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) came to the conclusion that the aging Pensacola Bay Bridge was due for a replacement. Originally opened in 1960, the Sen. Philip D. Beall Sr. Bridge replaced the aging Thomas A. Johnson Bridge, which had been in service since 1931. While its four-lane structure was more than sufficient in 1960, the Sen. Philip D. Beall Sr. Bridge was simply not up to the task of handling modern traffic. The bridge being part of a major evacuation route also contributed to the need to address the outdated structure. 

The bridge was simply nearing the end of its anticipated lifespan. Constant repairs were needed on the bridge’s 200 spans. Condition and capacity were two major factors that led FDOT to kick off the planning for a new bridge rather than an update to the old one. What followed was a $427 million project, the largest single infrastructure investment in Florida history. 

A Challenging Concept

While there was general acceptance of the idea that a new bridge was needed, some controversy surrounded the planning process. The exceptional feat of contemporary architecture that we see today in the new General Daniel ‘Chappie’ James, Jr. Bridge was not what was originally proposed. A public advisory committee made up of members of Pensacola business, fishing, outdoor enthusiast, development, and other communities was asked to weigh in on the project. Jerry Pate was also a member of the advisory committee. This group stepped up to find a way to make the new bridge a more beneficial infrastructure improvement. At the same time, they hoped it would serve as a signature city landmark. 

Chief among the concerns was the fact that the initial plans called for the Pensacola terminus to land in the same area as the existing bridge. This arrangement had been a known trouble spot for some time, as traffic coming off the bridge arrived immediately at a downtown traffic light, resulting in congestion for both bridge and city traffic. It was consistently one of the most problematic intersections for accidents in the city. An increase in capacity on the bridge would only exacerbate the issue. 

Additional Concerns

To make matters worse, the increase in bridge landing height to meet FEMA storm surge requirements would result in a steeper approach to the intersection. That intersection, however, would still be at the same height. It had already proved vulnerable to storm surge during hurricane Ivan, when it became impassable. The Pensacola Bay Bridge possibly being inaccessible during a hurricane would have a severe impact on a major evacuation route.

The impact on downtown businesses was also a concern. Congestion from through-traffic had been an issue for some time. There was a hope that a new bridge design could alleviate some of it. There was also a desire to connect both business and residential communities to the waterfront. The first plans did not meet these expectations and would likely have a negative impact by increasing traffic.

Evolving Plans

The concerns caught the attention of the mayor and design changes were proposed by the advisory committee. Those proposals received pushback from FDOT representatives and their consultants. Revised plans submitted to the advisory committee eliminated the additional traffic to the problematic intersection. But instead, these plans diverted it through neighborhoods that were not equipped to handle it. It was simply not a solution that was in the best interest of the residents of Pensacola.

It became clear that the advisory committee would need to do more than just approve plans handed down by FDOT. With the help of a team of volunteer engineers and architects, Jerry Pate and I designed an alternative proposal. This extended the bridge all the way to the bluff and created a local traffic roundabout underneath it. Support from the mayor and the community was overwhelmingly positive. Still, it took quite a bit of convincing before FDOT approved of the plan.

Advocating for Excellence

Jerry promoted the plan with the secretary of the FDOT and the governor. Meanwhile, I met with local Rotary Clubs, Sertoma Clubs, and other neighborhood organizations. Citizens were urged to write letters in support of the design. The Pensacola City Council, Escambia County Commission, Gulf Breeze City Council, and Santa Rosa County Commission all passed resolutions in support. Another associate helped us work with the transportation planning authority to prioritize the project and shepherd it through the planning process.

FDOT finally gave their approval to fund an engineering firm to study the design and that firm agreed that it worked better than the initial plan. The final design comprises two adjacent 16,138-foot-long structures, each with three 12-foot-wide travel lanes. Additionally, 10-foot-wide shoulders are expected to be a major improvement by providing much-needed room for breakdowns or emergency vehicle access.

On Behalf of the Community

Pate and other community leaders were also steadfast in their desire to have the new Pensacola Bay Bridge reflect the values and interests of local residents. Dedicated multi-use paths for walking, running, and bicycling were seen as an important part of the design. At one point during the design process a consultant mentioned that few people used the bridge for walking and biking. It had to be pointed out that people found the existing 5-foot-wide lanes, directly adjacent to traffic, too frightening to use. 

The final design made recreational lanes wider, at a lower level and separated from vehicular lanes, providing more security and enjoyment for pedestrians and bike riders. Shaded observation and rest points add to the enjoyment opportunities with beautiful views of the bay and downtown. Easier-to-access walking and biking connections to the bridge are also in progress.

Resulting Benefits of the Pensacola Bay Bridge

The results of all of this effort have been outstanding. It is more than just a thoroughfare into the city. The General Daniel ‘Chappie’ James, Jr. Bridge is developing a reputation as a beautiful attraction in its own right. It has also fulfilled its intended purpose. This new bridge alleviates much of the congestion related to the bridge landing. Traffic along the Bayfront Parkway no longer backs up frequently the way it did with the old bridge.

We at Jerry Pate Design are proud of our role in this project. Bringing the General Daniel ‘Chappie’ James, Jr. Bridge project to fruition has been rewarding. We are pleased at the positive impact it has had on the community. Driven by our love for Pensacola, we are glad we could do our part to make sure the new Pensacola Bay Bridge is the best investment for the city. Seeing the positive impact and hearing compliments and thanks from residents make all the effort we put into it worthwhile. 

Steve Dana
Steve Dana
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