Malfunction of gates on Stickney Point Road drawbridge late in afternoon of Saturday, March 9, creates chaos, Condominium Council reports

Incident resolved in about 40 minutes

This is a close-up of the Stickney Point Road drawbridge, which has four lanes of traffic. Image from Google Maps

A malfunction of the gates on the Stickney Point drawbridge late Saturday afternoon, March 9, produced calls to Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office 911 dispatchers and efforts to temporarily redirect traffic to the Siesta Drive drawbridge, The Sarasota News Leader has learned.

In response to a News Leader inquiry, Patricia Pichette, communications specialist on staff with District One of the Florida Department of Transportation, in Bartow, wrote in a March 11 email, “On Saturday evening at 4:16 pm, a span lock was not fully driven into the locked position after the bridge opened, and the gate would not raise until the span lock was fully engaged. It was quickly repaired and operational again at 4:54 pm.”

A November 1985 paper that the News Leader found online, presented by James M. Phillips III at the First Biennial Symposium and Exhibition on Movable Bridge Design and Technology, in Tallahassee, explains that span locks “are used to insure the continuity of bascule bridge [drawbridge] surfaces in the closed position. … End locks on double leaf bascule bridges are span locks.”

Phillips adds, “Improper alignment of the locking system is commonplace.”

This is a graphic in James Phillips III’s presentation about bascule bridges, prepared for a Tallahassee conference in November 1985.

Nonetheless, as evidenced by calls to 911, which the Sheriff’s Office’s Public Safety Communications center handled, and a Siesta Key Condominium Council newsletter this week, the “significant amount of traffic,” as persons characterized the situation in calls, led to long delays for drivers.

The Sarasota County School District’s annual spring break week officially began after the end of school on March 8, and spring break typically produces more visitors at Siesta Key Public Beach, Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office deputies on the barrier island have reported for years.

In response to a News Leader request for information from the Sheriff’s Office, Dana Judge, media relations specialist, told the News Leader via email on March 13, “Drivers were very frustrated.”

Judge released to the News Leader copies of the recordings of the calls that 911 dispatchers handled in regard to the bridge situation.

One man told a dispatcher that officers were needed at the scene. “People are driving backwards and stuff,” he reported. “People are crossing the median. … You really need an officer here to prevent a problem.”

In the first call among the recordings, a woman told a dispatcher, “We’ve been sitting here, and there’s something wrong with the bridge. … There’s a lot of traffic backed up.”

A dispatcher then called one of the bridge tenders, who reported that the gates were down, blocking traffic, even though the bridge was closed. “It’s not a clear passage at all,” the tender added, noting that someone had been called to the scene to resolve the problem.

The dispatcher called the first woman back and reported what the bridge tender had told her.

A dispatcher later called another bridge tender, after indicating she was unable to get anyone on the Stickney Point bridge to answer the phone. The dispatcher asked the second tender if he wanted law enforcement officers on the scene to direct traffic to the Siesta Drive drawbridge.

The second bridge tender, who apparently was on the Siesta Drive drawbridge, replied that he would try to contact the Stickney Point bridge tender via radio.

Moments later, that bridge tender told the dispatcher, “They got it fixed,” referring to the gates.

However, the male driver stuck in the traffic who had described the measures others were taking because of the situation told the dispatcher who answered his call, “It hasn’t been fixed.”

That call was logged at 4:38:15 p.m., Sheriff’s Office records show.

The dispatcher asked another person on staff with the Public Safety Communications center to contact the Stickney Point bridge tender again. Following that call, the dispatcher reported to the driver that the eastbound gates were stuck, so Dispatch would “get the first available [Sheriff’s Office] unit out there.”

The next recording provided to the News Leader included an exchange between a dispatcher and the Stickney Point bridge tender. The tender explained that an electrical engineer in Venice was headed to Stickney Point Road to work on the gates for the eastbound lanes. “He should be here in about 5 minutes,” the tender added, noting that she was uncertain how long the repair would take.

The dispatcher responded that two deputies had arrived on the scene for traffic control.

Eastbound traffic waits at the Stickney Point Road drawbridge in April 2018. File photo

The tender then asked that the deputies direct vehicles to the island, so motorists could use the Siesta Drive drawbridge. Most of the drivers who seemed confused about what to do on the Stickney Point bridge were westbound, the tender explained. “They can go, but they’re stopped,” the tender pointed out, indicating that drivers appeared to be worried about whether it was safe to cross the bridge.

The electrical engineer was working on the gate, the tender noted.

In response to another question that the dispatcher posed, the tender said that drivers could use a westbound lane to head east. She pointed out that the drawbridge has four lanes.

The next recording provided to the News Leader involved another man calling 911, reporting that drivers were stuck on the bridge. “The traffic is horrendous,” the man emphasized.

The dispatcher advised him that someone was working on the problem.

The last recording includes an exchange during which a dispatcher tells the caller that the problem finally had been resolved.

Judge of the Sheriff’s Office also provided the News Leader a copy of the call list related to the incident. That shows that the first officers sent to the scene were dispatched at 4:38:58 p.m.

By 4:44:13 p.m. that day, the call log shows, a total of five Sheriff’s Office units had been dispatched to the scene.

At 4:56:20 p.m., the log says, a dispatcher noted that traffic could come onto Siesta Key via a westbound lane on the bridge, referencing the call with the bridge tender.

Then, at 5:09:42 p.m., the call log notes, “Bridge tender [advised] both gates are now functional.” At 5:14:03 p.m., the log adds that the bridge was reopening.

Another Sheriff’s Office document — called a “case card” — says that as of 5:16:43 p.m., the traffic hazard had been mitigated and all of the Stickney Point Road drawbridge lanes had been reopened.

This is information on the Sheriff’s Office ‘case card’ about the March 9 incident. Image courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office

The Condominium Council report

In the Condominium Council’s March 11 communication to its members, Neal Schleifer, vice president of the organization, wrote the following narrative about the March 9 incident:

“From sometime before 4:00 pm until 5:30 pm or later, the arm at the [Stickney Point] Bridge could not be raised and traffic could not exit the Key via the bridge. What ensued was chaos. Frustrated pedestrians and cyclists began to go over the median to cross on the other side, sometimes continuing in the roadway. Traffic onto the Key was at first released sporadically in waves. A jeep drove off the Key into oncoming traffic. Drivers began crossing the median, often over the curb and plants, heading back to the north bridge. Some were stuck and powered over or pulled back. Then traffic began driving backward on Stickney Pt. Road to reach the opening near CB’s [Saltwater Outfitters, which is located at 1249 Stickney Point Road, on Siesta Key] and turn around to drive toward the [Siesta Drive] bridge. People were out of their cars and pedestrians in the road. Police did not arrive on the scene until 5:30 pm and could not drive beyond the intersection at Midnight Pass and Stickney Pt. Rd. Officials insisted the bridge was not broken. That is semantics. Vehicles could not exit Siesta Key via the Stickney Pt. Bridge during this time.”

The Condominium Council report then asked what would happen during a hurricane evacuation, if such a problem occurred on one of the drawbridges, as the island has only two accesses to the mainland.