New Wekiva River bridges: Sculptural, storied, ready

“New Wekiva River Bridges: Sculptural, Storied, Ready” from the Orlando Sentinel chronicles the meticulous steps taken to see this project through and provides a picturesque appreciation for the new Wekiva bridges. At FINLEY, we are proud to have been part of the Wekiva Bridges project and we hope you enjoy this great article as much as we did!

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A trio of new bridges over the Wekiva River are nearly done as part of the Wekiva Parkway north of Orlando. Nancy Prine, center, of Friends of the Wekiva River; Lee Constantine, lower left, a Seminole County commissioner; Deborah Shelley, upper right, active in Lake County environmental affairs; and Charles Lee, lower right, Audubon Florida’s advocacy director, paddle there in January. Kevin Spear/Orlando Sentinel photos

The undersides of the new bridges over the Wekiva River on the Wekiva Parkway are seen from below.

 

By Kevin Spear Orlando Sentinel

Three new bridges stand side by side over Central Florida’s treasured and troubled Wekiva River.

From the road above them, the scenery nestles in treetops. From beneath, the bridges suggest artifacts left by a civilization of inhabitants much larger than humans.

Their 360-foot decks soar monumentally over the river. Their legs plunge to earth as elephantine columns engraved with shapes of tree trunks. The undersides are sculptural. Not a bit of it touches water.

Emerging from the Wekiva’s intimate wetlands in a kayak or canoe, drifting under the spans and looking up six stories is to be hushed by the mismatch: prodigious bridges, prized but modest river, tiny person. The space is an open-air cathedral. Raising it was storied.

“This could not have happened without the collaborative effort of many,” said Nancy Prine, who was there for the decades of toiling.

She and three other people who had prominent roles in the way the Wekiva Parkway bridges were designed were invited by the Orlando Sentinel to paddle along the river for their first look at the three bridges from the water.

They were: Prine of Friends of the Wekiva River; Lee Constantine, a Seminole County commissioner; Deborah Shelley, a former longtime manager of the state’s Wekiva River Aquatic Preserve; and Charles Lee, Audubon Florida’s advocacy director.

The bridges over the Wekiva belong to the 25-mile, $1.6 billion Wekiva Parkway, which is a toll road that provides the final segment of already completed beltway around Orlando along state roads 429 and 417 and a few miles of Interstate 4. The Wekiva Parkway came after interventions of governors and legislatures because of its environmentally sensitive location.

The parkway crosses east and west through spring-soaked wilderness of the Wekiva River basin: a wedge of wildlands — including Seminole forest, Rock Springs preserve and Wekiwa Springs park — in a vice of metro Orlando.

Environmentalists protected that landscape as sacrosanct. Developers clamored for acreage. Transportation officials strained to finish the beltway. Traffic killed bears on the only highway across the river, State Road 46.

After years of tough talks, lawmakers passed the Wekiva Parkway and Protection Act. It authorized the road and costly environmental safeguards.

That was 18 years ago.

The Wekiva Parkway will be complete next year, extending from near Apopka and Mount Dora to near Sanford.

But the trio of bridges across the Wekiva River that cost $60 million is nearly done. One is open, carrying traffic of S.R. 46, which the parkway supplants. The other two, for the tolled expressway lanes, will open in a few months.

The bridges are incomparable on many levels.

From a high level, they stand at the end of a long road of compromise and consensus that could not happen in today’s polarized politics, said Constantine, a state senator from Altamonte Springs when the parkway act passed. “Gov. Bush said protect the river, build the road and get complete agreement,” he said.

At a low level, literally to the bottom of the piers, is their color.

The Wekiva River is one of only two in the state designated as a National Wild and Scenic River.

At a meeting 11 years ago, a National Park Service biologist referred to the S.R. 46 bridge that the parkway bridges would replace.

“The color that’s out there now is exactly the wrong color,” he said of the bare concrete.

A bridge color was selected after evaluating sample swatches, considering iconic bridges elsewhere and narrowing the choice to four finalists.
“The darkest one was chosen,” Prine said.

The Florida Department of Transportation’s vendor calls it dark brown. It will be applied as a penetrating stain — about 5,100 gallons of it. The application, occurring now, will cost $1 million.

Dark brown doesn’t convey the sense of the finish, especially when sunlight bounces off the river and shimmers on the bridges’ bellies.

“I think it blends nicely,” said Shelley, who has been active in Lake County environmental affairs. “It’s sort of like tree bark with shadows. It’s certainly a lot better than stark white.”

The group paddled south, going upriver from the state’s Katie’s Landing to the north side of the bridges.

From that direction, the view of the nearest bridge is heavily camouflaged by trees. A truck appeared, more visible than the bridge, rolling swiftly from east to west as if slipstreaming through leaves and not on concrete.

Lee didn’t respond immediately when asked what he thought of the structures’ appearance. “It took me a full minute to figure out where you were seeing the bridges,” he said.

The transportation department worked outside its box for that view.

“If you have ever followed FDOT construction before, you know that we like to clear and grub and take out everything within the roadway section,” said Rick Vallier, the state’s parkway manager.

At the Wekiva, trees were left to overhang portions of the bridges.

“The contractor asked for more area to construct these bridges and we were very adamant about not removing any trees or vegetation,” Vallier said.

That included a cypress estimated at 900 to 1,200 years old.

“We had an arborist come in and trim a couple of limbs for safety,” John Hatfield, construction engineer for DOT’s Central Florida region. “Supposedly it’s a contender for having one of the largest diameters of cypress trees.”

The Wekiva bridges are to serve as a wildlife undercrossing, a big one.

The main span over the river is 360 feet. Adjoining both sides are spans 260 feet long. There are another six spans to the west, each at 145 feet long, and two spans to the east, each at 159 feet.

The total of wildlife crossing at the river is 2,068 feet, or vastly more than from the old State Road 46 bridge that was in the same place.

Before the boat trip, Prine had a hope “that the years of work will live up to our expectations.”

Minutes after arriving, the four visitors agreed the bridges had been done well, and as well as they expected from discussions so many years ago.

But soon, they turned to their rising worry over suburban development that threatens to crowd around the Wekiva Parkway in Lake County.

“The jury is still out as to whether or not the spring shed will be protected,” said Shelley of the landscape that soaks up rainfall and funnels it underground to the springs along the river.

The four said that there may not be the same resolve for protecting the river now as when the law was passed authorizing the parkway.

“This happened only because environmentalists, Florida elected officials, roadbuilders and even developers were willing to set aside ideological pretense,” Lee said. “It is hard to imagine such a good outcome happening again in today’s rancorous political setting.”

The noise from traffic on just one of the bridges was unmistakable, promising that the volume from all three bridges will not be pleasant.

But the staccato clatter from the S.R. 46 bridge, tires slapping concrete joints, rang out harshly far from the river.

That old bridge was a blight, in the visitors’ memories, with its 36 pilings pounded into the river bottom, forming a picket fence that stymied wildlife, water and paddlers. Those pilings were carefully plucked out by road builders.

The Wekiva bridges are somewhat like many coastal bridges that soar upward so that large vessels can pass beneath. It is startling to see that much structure amid Wekiva wetlands.

Just south of the bridges is a wide area of Wekiva River, without trees hindering views.

From there, the main bridge span creates a photo frame of sorts at 360 feet wide and 54 feet from the water to the bottom edge of concrete.

As the four were set to paddle back to Katie’s Landing, a great egret flew toward the bridge. Lee pointed out the large, white bird to the others.
It didn’t simply slip through the picture frame. It performed within its generous airspace: rising, angling right, dropping left and flying on.
“That’s pretty cool,” Constantine said.

kspear@orlandosentinel.com

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