The ‘red bridge' has drivers seeing red


First, let's all be clear about how to spell the most irritating bridge in Northeast Florida.

It's one t, not two, in Mathews.

But, heck, even the Florida Department of Transportation got it wrong on its detour signs.

It might be the most misspelled Jacksonville landmark, right up there with Philips (that's one l, not two) Highway.

The bridge that we've all been cursing under our collective breath — and now at the top of our lungs — is named after John E. Mathews Sr., a constitutional lawyer, Florida state legislator and chief justice of the 1955 Florida Supreme Court. That's Mathews with one t, so blame him if you keep getting it wrong.

Just last April, several Arlington organizations celebrated the bridge's 60th anniversary with a rededication, a classic car motorcade and a party at Norman Studios.

When construction began on May 17, 1950, some criticized the Mathews as an $11 million "bridge to nowhere." It opened on April 15, 1953, when Arlington was still quite rural.

Since that time, many neighborhoods have flourished and some have foundered in the area. Today, you'll hear people whisper "Arlington" in the same tone some use for "cancer," like it's a disease they're scared of catching. It's become shorthand for troubled neighborhood. Like most enormous geographic areas, Arlington has problems — poverty, troubled schools, crime — mixed with prosperity. But that's another column.

Those of us who live in Arlington have been dealing with Mathews rage for years.

In April 2007, the DOT finally decided to replace the scary, slippery grating — that caused many nail-digging trips over the Mathews — with concrete, at a cost of about $13 million. At first, they were going to close the bridge in one direction every day. Public pressure caused a change of heart and a change of traffic flow each day during morning and evening rush hours for a few months.

In September 2011, FDOT started a $23 million project to repaint and make structural repairs on the Mathews. The bridge has been closed most evenings and weekends since then, causing many exasperated drivers to realize they had just missed the 7 p.m. cutoff each evening.

I can't count the number of times I've driven by orange barrels blocking the ramp from University Boulevard to the Mathews and seen no work being done — no work vehicles, only a lone police car, lights flashing. But perhaps that work is imperceptible to the naked eye.

In the city of seven bridges, many people can't even identify them by name, only by color: blue for Main Street, green for Hart and red for Mathews (maroon really, changed from silver in 1984, apparently to herald the arrival of the United States Football League team, the Jacksonville Bulls).

About 56,000 drivers a day cross the Mathews — when it's open — an integral artery connecting neighborhoods from Arlington to Atlantic Beach across the river to Downtown and the Westside. The detour stresses an already-overflowing University and Atlantic intersection, which can't handle normal rush hour traffic. And one measly lane from Atlantic Boulevard onto the Hart Bridge doesn't cut it. The circuitous Interstate 295 route north over the Dames Point to Interstate 95 remains blissfully light but is double the distance.

Now the Mathews is closed indefinitely because a cargo ship hit it Sept. 26, causing major damage to a beam at the high point of the bridge. Repairs could take several weeks.

The crews of three tugboats and the federal maritime pilot onboard the USNS 1st Lt. Harry L. Martin, a 754-foot-long container and roll-on/roll-off cargo ship, face a U.S. Coast Guard investigation.

Were drugs or alcohol involved? Was it some sort of mechanical problem? Unusually high water? One thing that seems fairly evident, at least for two men shooting a cellphone video from the riverbank: A boat with its ramp up doesn't fit under the Mathews.

When we finally learn who they are, the faces of those responsible for this collision will be seared into the memories of every driver stuck in traffic for the foreseeable future. One possible punishment: Make them get out there and direct traffic every day until this is over.

Until then, detoured drivers will have to find ways to pass the time. Like coming up with Mathews Bridge jokes.

What's easier to fix — the Jaguars or the Mathews Bridge?
It depends. Is Blaine Gabbert chief engineer?

Why did the cargo ship hit the Mathews Bridge?
The pilot thought the mayor took it to "the next level."

Why is the Mathews Bridge called the "bridge 
to nowhere"?
It goes directly to EverBank Field. 

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