Local powerbroker Llwyd Ecclestone was on a hunting trip in Michigan last week when his cell phone lit up with “thank you” calls from Palm Beach.
Ecclestone was instrumental earlier this year in persuading Gov. Rick Scott to keep the old Flagler Memorial Bridge open while a new $94 million bridge is being built – even though Florida Department of Transportation officials had recommended closing the 75-year-old bridge for good during the construction.
But Ecclestone and other Palm Beach business leaders appealed to Scott, saying that a shutdown would cause a traffic nightmare, which came true Tuesday when the old bridge malfunctioned again.
“When the bridge broke, I saw the traffic backed up and called Llwyd Ecclestone to thank him for convincing Gov. Scott to keep it open instead of closing it months ago,’’ said William D. Yahn, regional senior vice president of The Corcoran Group. “We now see how awful it is not to have that bridge operating.’’
A second round of repairs on the old bridge will start Monday, and state officials expect the bridge to open again a week later on Nov. 25. But the problems raise the question for some of whether the cost of keeping the old bridge open was worth it in the first place.
The original estimate for the repairs was $5 million. But the contract was for $9.4 million when work started June 5. The contractor, Archer Weston, finished the job Oct. 29 and got another $675,000 in incentive bonuses for completing the work ahead of schedule.
The bridge, which is the northern-most bridge between West Palm Beach and the island of Palm Beach, was used again for only two weeks before being shut down Tuesday when its two moving spans failed to lock into place. DOT officials are still reviewing the costs of making the additional repairs.
“They gave in to political pressure from Palm Beach,’’ said Thomas Shebell, a retired New Jersey judge and former Palm Beach resident who now lives at the west end of the Flagler bridge at Waterview Towers in West Palm Beach.
“It’s not Palm Beach who’s paying for it. It’s all the (state’s) taxpayers paying for it and who knows what the end price tag is. And then they give a bonus for finishing early? Give me a break.’’
Shebell said motorists going to and from the island should be able to adjust their schedules and use one of the other two bridges between the municipalities – the Royal Park Bridge, which is the middle bridge, and the Southern Boulevard Bridge.
“If I still lived there, I would be the inconvenienced. But I know from years of experience, it’s not a big deal to go down to the next bridge and go over. It’s not a big deal,’’ he said.
“The expense is just not warranted. Why saddle taxpayers with that kind of expense for the few people who would have been impacted in Palm Beach? It doesn’t make sense.’’
But Ecclestone said he reached out to Scott because “it was super-important.”
He said several thousand of Palm Beach’s 8,358 residents live on the northern half of the island.
“I talked to the governor through the whole process. I told him, ‘I think there’s an obligation to the state to keep this open.’ (Scott) said, ‘Llwyd, I will call you back this afternoon.’ He called me back and said, ‘Llywd, we don’t know how yet, but we will keep this bridge open.’’’
FDOT Secretary Ananth Prasad acknowledged Ecclestone’s role in keeping the bridge open while the new one is being built.
“Obviously, he was concerned about it,’’ Prasad said Friday. “I think Mr. Ecclestone casually talked to the governor and (Scott) called me and said, ‘Hey, I talked to Ecclestone. What’s going on with Flagler?’ His words to me were: Do the right thing for the state and the local residents.’’
The Palm Beach Civic Association also launched a web-based campaign asking members to send emails to Scott and Prasad about keeping the bridge open.
Prasad said it was unusual in the first place for the state to recommend closing the old bridge while a new one was constructed. He said the state’s “standard operating procedure is to always keep the bridge open” while building a replacement bridge.
But the regional FDOT office recommended closing the 75-year-old Flagler bridge because cracks and shifts in it, caused by driving in the pillars on the adjacent new span, made it unsafe for vehicular travel and the $20 million cost of the original plan to shore it up was deemed too much.
Prasad also said it was not unusual for his office in Tallahassee to reconsider such a decision at the request of an affected community. After the outcry from Palm Beach, FDOT sought a two-week review by consultant Parsons Brinckerhoff, which developed a less expensive plan calling for burying 68 micropiles deep into the underwater soil that would form a three-sided box along the outside of existing support pillars and connect to the old pillars underwater.
There’s still a chance the state will have to close the old bridge next year if additional settling occurs after the latest round of repairs.
“If the bridge is unsafe, we will close it,’’ Prasad said, “but the bridge is safe.’’
For now, he believes the state will still be able to finish the new bridge by the projected completion date of fall 2016.
However, work on a $49.5 million replacement of the Southern Boulevard Bridge will not start until after the Flagler bridge work is completed, Prasad said. The Southern bridge project, estimated to last 3 1/2 years, originally was scheduled to start in the fall of 2015.
Palm Beachers contributed $9,195 to Scott’s election campaign in 2010, including $500 from Ecclestone. Scott’s “Let’s Get to Work” political action committee received $37,500 from Palm Beachers, including $10,000 from Ecclestone.
Town Councilman Bill Diamond said Ecclestone should be applauded for his role in keeping the Flagler bridge open.
“He was the motivator making DOT understand what the terrible damage would be to the economy, not just Palm Beach, but the area’s economy, if that bridge could not be fixed,’’ Diamond said.
“All of it was based on good intentions and they put their money where their mouth was, so to speak.’’
Yahn said, “It may sound petty because we’ve got two other bridges, but it’s a big deal.”
Staff researcher Niels Heimeriks and The Palm Beach Daily News contributed to this story.