Residents question progress on over-budget, incomplete project

 

Residents living near Willow Branch Creek would like to wrap up a nearly three-year-long bridge project before further damage is done.

The rainy spring and summer which plagued most of the Riverside Avenue/Willow Branch Creek bridge project during 2013 promises to be a matter of déjà vu this year and fears of flooding are on residents’ minds, particularly those who live on Riverside, St. Johns and Willow Branch Avenues and on Willow Branch Terrace.

In 2012, the City of Jacksonville awarded a bid to David Touring, president of The Touring Company, to rebuild a portion of Riverside Avenue over Willow Branch Creek. Designed as an intersection improvement, the project included widening Riverside Avenue over the creek and adding sidewalks.

The $325,000 project included installation of balustrades to replace the original set on the west side of Riverside Avenue. By the time the project was mostly complete in December 2013, Touring had spent an additional $250,000 out of pocket and was unable to order the balustrades.

During the course of the project, severe rainstorms caused the temporary construction dams to be breached, sending silt and construction debris into Willow Branch Creek and into the yacht basin. This washout only added to the silt that was deposited some months prior from a JEA water main blowout. Both Touring and the JEA share responsibility for cleanup.

Unsafe, unhealthy situation

The situation is unsatisfactory, according to Cathleen Murphy, who lives on Willow Branch Terrace. She said the water in the creek is stagnant and unhealthy for marine life and water fowl that fish in the creek.

“The silt cleanup was supposed to be part of the bridge project, but still nothing has been done,” she stated in a 630-CITY service request on May 30, 2015. Her request continues, “After hundreds of cubic feet of silt and soil were dumped into the creek it’s completely unnavigable. Removing the silt and debris will ensure safe water flow for marine life, provide proper drainage after storms…and protect residential properties and roadways from flood damage.”

Flood damage is a significant worry for most of the homeowners in that area.

“We’re very concerned that another tropical storm or hurricane would flood our properties,” said Ed Walker, who lives near the creek. “All of us along the creek are concerned that if the creek floods our homes will be flooded. With hurricane season we would all likely be under water if one came through. It could happen.”

Ironically, the problems associated with the bridge replacement on Riverside Avenue may have an impact on the St. Johns Avenue bridge [built around 1916 as part of the yacht basin] over Willow Branch Creek.

“The bridge could be historic,” said Murphy. “The sidewalks are collapsing and caving in, and flooding will put additional weight on the bridge.”

Wheels of resolution grind slowly

When Touring first started the Riverside Avenue bridge replacement in March 2013, Murphy had a positive attitude. “I thought, ‘Oh, great, this is a positive for the neighborhood…more pedestrian friendly and bike friendly is positive.’ Two and a half years later it’s not finished and nothing’s been done since.”

After more than a year of back and forth email in 2014 with District 14 Councilman Jim Love and City of Jacksonville Chief of Engineering and Construction Management Bill Joyce, homeowners wanted answers. A small group met with Love and Joyce late last October to ask why the project wasn’t finished. At that meeting, Joyce estimated the project could be finished within six to eight months, giving it a completion date of June 30, 2015.

Following the October 2014 meeting, residents assumed the Environmental Quality Division (EQD) would begin the process of creating a Consent Order which would lay out the conditions of completion for Touring.

Late last year the Construction Dispute Resolution Board agreed Touring should receive another $110,700 – less than half of what he had requested. A construction change order was then issued by the City of Jacksonville in late January 2015.

As of early July, the Consent Order still had not been issued. According to an email statement The Resident obtained through a source, Melissa Long, EQD Division Chief, stated “If the CO is signed and executed, he [Touring] will need to submit his plan to us for approval first and then obtain any necessary permits if any are required. So it might take a bit longer depending on the plan. If he signs the CO but doesn’t complete a requirement, we would petition the court to enforce the CO.  If he doesn’t sign the CO, then we move forward through the court system.”

After Murphy entered her 630-CITY service request in May, Walker observed city workers pulling trash and plastic tarps from the creek near the bridge on Riverside Avenue, but was told any dredging of sediment would be addressed through the Consent Order.

The Resident reached out to Councilman Love and to the Office of Public Affairs to get answers specifically as to why it is has taken months for the Consent Order to be prepared and what is the current status of the creek dredging and cleanup.

According to James Croft, Public Communications Officer for the City of Jacksonville, the City is continuing negotiations to develop a mutually agreeable Consent Order (CO).

“The CO is required before dredging of the creek can take place,” Croft said in an email. “Means and methods of the dredge construction will be identified as part of the CO process.”

He also noted that the balustrade installation has been delayed due to problems the manufacturer encountered during production of the balustrades. “We understand the new installation date will be August 17,” Croft stated.

By Kate A. Hallock
Resident Community News

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