Historic City Memories: The Magic Roundabout

Tale of the Magic Roundabout

Part four of a three part series

The writer got long winded and remembered something else

By Geoff Dobson

On November 19, 1982, the Bridge of Lions was placed on the National Register. Additionally, the downtown plan is on the National Register as are the parks at the western end of the Bridge.

The Bridge as constructed by J. E. Greiner between 1925 and 1927 was deficient both structurally and from a safety viewpoint.

If the bridge was left in place and merely maintained, maintenance costs would continue to rise and additional weight restrictions would have to be imposed. Already weight restrictions had been imposed, first 15 tons and later reduced to 10 tons.

Ultimately, however, the bridge would have to be closed to vehicular traffic. Certainly, nobody would want to be on the bridge if it ever gave way.

The writer when he was in high school has already had that pleasure. On a back country road, the writer was crossing a bridge in a 2 1/2 ton Packard. The bridge seemed to feel as if it were giving way. Gunning the powerful Packard engine, the writer made it to safety on the far side. For the next six months to get home, it was necessary to take even more remote sand trails until the bridge could be replaced.

For the Bridge of Lions, the Department ultimately considered five alternatives: (a) Maintenance only, (b) two schemes for “rehabilitation,” and (c) two schemes for a new bridge. Maintenance only was quickly rejected. Replacement of the bridge with a four-lane bridge was also quickly eliminated, it that it was regarded as having only a minor improvement on traffic in the downtown area unless there was a major change in the streets. That, however, would not have been possible. The two considerations for a replacement bridge were for two-lane bridges, one a bridge replicating the style of the existing bridge and the other a modern bridge. The later was regarded as inconsistent with the downtown historical architecture.

A major consideration was also maintenance of traffic across the bridge as the work was being done. The advantage of a new bridge would be that the old Bridge of Lions could be used for traffic while a new bridge was being constructed to the south of the existing bridge. Even if the replacement bridge, had the major aesthetic aspects of the old bridge, Federal Register status would be lost. Thus, ultimately the Department eliminated the two alternatives of a new bridge, whether a modern looking bridge or one with the major aesthetic qualities of the original bridge. A new bridge would also have to meet current standards and even with elements of the original bridge, i.e. arches, towers, railings, and lights, it would be quite different and Federal Register status would be lost and (not said) in the DOT analysis federal funding would be jeopardized. A modern bridge would also be quite higher and would impact the downtown area.

Thus, the citizens of St. Augustine were left with a “rehabilitated” bridge. Of the two rehabilitation proposals, only the one adopted would maintain Federal Register status.

A major consideration by the DOT has been maintenance of traffic. As anyone who has sat in line on SR 312 when the Bridge of Lions was closed for maintenance is aware, the intersection with US I under such circumstances will back traffic all the way back to Mizell Road. Accordingly a “temporary bridge” was deemed necessary. Only two alternatives permitted the temporary bridge to be eliminated, the “doing nothing” alternative or a new bridge. The DOT rejected both of those alternatives.

Like Will Rogers, the writer only knows what he reads in the papers. The papers have recently indicated that there has been a “to do” about the roofs on the towers as not being fully original. Of course, very little of the new Bridge of Lions is fully compliant with the original. The roadways are wider. The original lanes were only eleven feet wide, narrower than current standards. The traces of the trolley tracks are missing, although with imagination a semblance of them remains in the east-bound lane as a result of the difference in the anti-slip grooving of the concrete bridge decking. The sidewalks on the original bridge do not meet current five foot wide requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Two wheel chairs must be able to pass each other. Concrete barriers have been installed to insure the safety of pedestrians. In order to meet lane, sidewalk widths, and provide for the concrete barriers, the bridge had to be widened. (So as not to lose, Federal Register status, the sidewalks on the draw spans had to be left narrower. “Turn arounds” have, however, been provided.

One of the major causes of backups on the bridge is inadequate storage lanes on the west end of the bridge. Only minor changes are being made on the west end. One change is the circle surrounding the statute of Juan Ponce de Leon. Apparently, it is intended to eliminate the necessity of venturing into the intersection with Avenida Mendendez in order to circle the Plaza in an endless hunt for a parking place. Motorists may continue to expect delays in the future as a result of more than five cars in a straight ahead or left hand turn lane blocking vehicles turning north.

Over the years, various citizens have proposed solutions to those problems. Over twenty years ago, then City Manager Calvin Glidewell proposed that there be constructed on the west end of the Bridge of Lions a roundabout. The writer has seen two other proposals for roundabouts from various citizens who went to the effort of using aerial photographs to demonstrate that there was room for such a structure. Of course, such plans went nowhere. Americans have an instinctive fear of roundabouts, perhaps brought about by endlessly circling the Arc de Triomphe at the western end of the Champs-Élysées, or by such horrors as the roundabout at Junction 4 outside of Heathrow Airport or the “Magic Roundabout” at Swindon off M4. Perhaps also they have experienced the wonders of Dupont Circle in Washington or the traffic circle at Alexandria, Louisiana.

Nevertheless, in the afternoon when traffic waiting to cross the Bridge of Lions is backed up to the Fort, the writer has observed some using the Plaza as a large roundabout. Rather than waiting for a left-hand turn at the light at the foot of the bridge, some make a right hand turn onto Cathedral, turn left at St. George, another left on King, and proceed onto the bridge. In the revisions to the west end of the Bridge, the DOT has now constructed a small roundabout on the east end of the Plaza and converted Anderson Circle into a small roundabout. Thus, to some extent, we now have roundabouts within a roundabout. Maybe not as glorious as the Magic Roundabout at Swindon, but a roundabout anyway.

Geoff Dobson, a St Augustine resident for the past 33 years, is a western and Florida history writer and was former General Counsel for the Florida Department of Transportation. He is a former president of the St. Augustine Historical Society and a regular contributor of nostalgic memories to Historic City News. Before his parents moved to Florida, his father was a Black Angus cattleman. Geoff has written extensively on Wyoming history (“Wyoming Tales and Trails”). When Geoff was in high school, his family lived in the cattle country of eastern Sarasota County. The family spread, which his parents called “Wild Cat Slough,” was reachable only by a pair of ruts over the sand hills and through a snake and gator infested slough. Now, it is an area of four-lane roads, expensive subdivisions, shopping centers, and office parks. . His undergraduate degree is in history. Geoff received his post-graduate degree from the University of Florida. He may be reached at horse.creek.cowboy@gmail.com

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