The news in paradise was good at the end of May, the long-barred "three mile bridge" would soon reopen. This is the path of U.S. 98, the artery from Pensacola east across the panhandle. It tracks the coast, roughly parallel with Interstate 10. Though it is thus "east/west," it crosses the Pensacola Bay nearly north/south. It is a major artery, linking the interstate and Pensacola with the beaches and communities to the east. That crossing was built in 1931, a two-lane bridge that was replaced with a four-lane in 1960. Its importance was somewhat diminished when the I-10 bridge was completed over the bay in 1968.
Some may recall that on the morning of Tuesday, September 15, 2020 "some people did something," or did not, as in they did not adequately secure their barges. The outer reaches of Hurricane Sally (some 24 hours before landfall) had broken some loose from moorings; by storm's end 27 of them were loose and committing mayhem on the "three mile bridge," and elsewhere. If you have never been to paradise, understand that the bridge has a name (Pensacola Bay Bridge), but everyone calls it the "three mile." Maybe to differentiate from the "other bridge" on I-10 (Escambia Bay Bridge), maybe just lazy reference. The three-mile bridge was battered and beaten by the construction equipment.
On the morning of September 16, 2020 Hurricane Sally came ashore in Pensacola. Coincidentally, Hurricane Ivan came ashore in about the same place, exactly 16 years prior, September 16, 2004. Sally passed, winds subsided, waters receded, and the cleanup began. Make no mistake, "I lived through Ivan, I knew Ivan, Ivan was no friend of mine. Sally, you were no Ivan." However, we were frustrated in Sally's aftermath because the bridge remained closed. It took days for anything approaching news coverage to provide details. The bridge was brand new (2019) replacing an older structure that coincidentally had "survived everything from hurricanes to barge strikes," according to the newspaper.
Coincidentally, Ivan destroyed a bridge also. The damage to the Escambia Bay Bridge back in 2004 made the national news. The scene drew attention due to the sheer magnitude of damage, the many "spans" had been lifted and shifted, some 46 had fallen into the bay and submerged. It was a devastating storm impact. However, the response was immediate and in 17 days phase one of the temporary repair was completed and traffic again rolled across that I-10 bridge. One lane each way, but it flowed. Full restoration required longer. The eventual replacement of the bridge required longer, but in less than a month traffic was moving again after the devastation of Ivan.
Thus, U.S. 98 is not the only route from the beach to Pensacola, but it is the most direct route. I was accustomed to departing daily for a 15 minute drive to work, very occasionally punctuated by a stalled vehicle or fender bender. The propensity for anyone to observe the 45 MPH speed limit on or around the three mile bridge was nil. Many mornings, the commute had the feel of a NASCAR race, coming off of a rain delay. I've seen a lot of paint traded on that route over the years. Frantic often, but never boring.
About 8 miles down U.S. 98 to the East, there is another bridge to the mainland. The Garcon bridge is a two-lane toll bridge that usually garnered little attention. Suddenly in September 2020, this little path was the belle of the ball. Unless one wanted to drive another 13 miles to Florida 87 (the next opportunity to the east by which to reach Interstate 10 to the north), then the Garcon was the only shot. We were fortunate the Governor suspended the $5.00 each-way toll.
Thousands were suddenly isolated, separated by a mere three miles that may as well have been 40. The 7 mile commute to work instantly became 37. The 15 minutes of driving became 45 on a great day and 75 more regularly (coming and going), an overall extra 75 minutes a day would perhaps be a fair average of the additional time. Just because some barges were not adequately secured.
The situation soon devolved. Someone hired a plane to fly a banner back and forth around the "not a bridge." There were signs posted along the road and in businesses "clean up this mess." And, days turned into weeks, weeks into months, skepticism into acceptance. And then, On May 27, 2021 the news reported that re-opening of the bridge was imminent. Well, half a bridge. This four-lane would reopen the week of May 31, 2021 they proclaimed, but would be one lane each direction in places. An improvement, no doubt. But, half a bridge. And, after the grand announcement, they opened it May 28, 2021, days before expected. That was 254 days after Sally, almost nine months (almost the human gestation period). Restoring two lanes required a bit longer than the 17 days for the devastated Escambia bridge in 2004.
In all honesty, the reopening has been an incredible relief. Yes, the traffic slows at the one-lane portion. Yes, it is not as convenient as it once was. But, it is welcome and is a relief. They are back to building the bridge that they started on in March 2017. It is curious that the Escambia Bay Bridge damage in Ivan was far more extensive, there was no heavy equipment on site at the time, and traffic began flowing there within a month of landfall. In the aftermath of Sally, it somehow required near the human gestation period to restore two lanes of traffic, despite all the equipment seemingly already here and waiting.
What is the fallout? Many businesses have filed lawsuits alleging economic hardship from the closure of U.S. 98. The news reports that "roughly 1,000 businesses" have filed suit. Reportedly "millions of dollars have been lost due to the bridge's closure." Some predict that it will require years to sort those allegations out. But what of the less obvious impacts?
Taking my experience as an exemplar is unlikely to be fair. My commute was very short (7 miles) and turned very long 37. To be fair, the average person perhaps experienced more of a 20 mile increase each way, each day; 40 extra miles per day. They were probably busy the Thursday and Friday after Sally, did not commute on Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years and other holidays. But, in the 254 days between Sally and the reopening, 173 were likely commuted. Of course, some may have simply given up their seniority and sought other employment that avoided the commute.
That is 173 days times 40 miles, or 6,920 miles perhaps. At the federal "standard mileage rate," for 2020, that would be $3,979 ($.575 x 6,920). That does not account for the idling at stop lights and general congestion. There is a reason that my 37 mile drive required up to 75 minutes. How much fuel was consumed? How much carbon was emitted? How much time was wasted?
Time. That is 173 days times that 75 extra minutes per day, or 12,975 minutes spent on additional commuting. That is 216 hours, or 27 complete days wasted because some barges got loose. We might agree that the failure to secure the barges impacted people's lives.
One news outlet reported that the traffic on the three mile bridge was 30,000 to 60,000 vehicles daily. The local newspaper put the traffic count at 55,000 daily. Which of these is actual, daily, traffic? If 30,000 vehicle drivers had the damage above, then the monetary impact of mileage was about $120 million ($3,979 x 30,000). If you double the vehicles, then just double that, $240 million. Because some barges were not adequately secured.
Think of 216 hours spent in traffic. Value it conservatively at the $26.22 estimated by SalaryExpert.com. That time was worth $5,663.52 (the average driver suffered about ten thousand dollars). Multiply that by the 30,000 cars and you get roughly $170 million ($5,663.52 x 30,000), or $340 million if the car count is 60,000. On the conservative side, the economic impact was perhaps $290 million ($120 million + $170 million), or even double that, $580 million. For comparison, the news reported back in 2017 that the total cost of building this new bridge was estimated at $400 million.
In coming weeks, there is hope that the other half of the bridge will re-open. The long, bleak winter will finally be over and paradise will return to its hustle and bustle. As it does, hopefully we all remain a bit more thankful for the bridge. I have noticed drivers are a lot less frenzied and traffic is much more gentile and courteous. Perhaps that can remain as the memory of all this fades? Well, it already faded some, with our first road rage incident. And, perhaps the next time a hurricane threatens, someone will secure the barges? It is admittedly somewhat troubling that the bridge reopening so closely coincides with the start of the 2021 hurricane season.
What does all this have to do with workers' compensation? Perhaps not much. Or, perhaps there are lessons in the bridge. Planning is critical in a safe workplace, and safety prevents tragedy. The bridge reminds of that. The impacts of accidents can be dramatically different, a bridge is not a bridge is not a bridge any more than a patient is a patient. Recoveries can be dramatically different, sometimes inexplicably. And, the impacts of an accident may extend well beyond that actual damage (the bridge) to many that depend upon that employee for production, support, and more.
Some people see the glass as half full, the others as half empty. I admittedly see half a bridge, but am grateful for it. There is curiosity why dramatically more devastation in 2004 could be rectified in mere days. There is consternation over continued delays and the limited two-lanes. But, optimism is returning. Construction crews are working. The patience and courtesy of drivers is a welcome side-effect of our experience. And, with luck the storms will avoid us this year to allow the damages to be fully repaired.
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