MORE FLORIDA FOR CRUISING
Transportation officials recommend replacing low
bridge on the St. Johns, opening 110 miles
of river to thousands of sailboats
By Peter Swanson
In a move that may well open more than 100 miles of navigable waterways to thousands of cruising sailors, Florida transportation officials are recommending that the 45-foot-high Shands Bridge on the St. Johns River be torn down and replaced with a 65-foot span.
"Although the exact dimensions of the new bridge over the St Johns River will not be determined until the design phase, the Department is recommending a 65-foot vertical clearance," said Bill Henderson, district planning and environmental manager for the Florida Department of Transportation.
Jack Dozier, publisher of the Waterway Guide, praised the DOT's recommendation and urged Florida's governor and the mayor of Jacksonville, the largest city on the St. Johns, to support the proposal. Dozier said razing the Shands in favor of a tall bridge would boost the local economy and go along way to rehabilitate Florida's flagging reputation as a boater-friendly state.
Although there is no timetable for the project, it's completion is inevitable because of the blinding pace of development along this area of the Florida coast, with Clay County on the western shore and St. John's on the east being two of top 100 fastest growing counties in the U.S.
Transportation planners were eager to provide a better coastal evacuation route than afforded by the 2-lane Shands Bridge, whose replacement would be part of a beltway corridor linking Jacksonville to the St. Augustine area. Officials are not certain how the new bridge would be funded and have suggested making it a toll way.
For boaters and the area's marine industry the question has always been how high the new bridge.
Since 1929 when the first Shands bridge was built, the city of Green Cove Springs has been the terminus for many masted vessels. While the replacement bridge raised the mast height to its current 45 feet in 1963, the improvement became less meaningful over the next four decades as the average size of sailboats grew.
Very few sailboats over 35 feet in length can pass under the Shands, and now that the average sailboat is more than 42-feet long, the number of cruising sailboats capable of moving upriver from Green Cove Springs has grown even smaller.
Green Cove is about 42 miles from the intersection of the Intracoastal Waterway and the St. John's River, and every bridge until the Shands either has 65-feet of clearance or it opens. Similarly, the next bridge south of the Shands has a fixed 65-foot clearance and the bridges beyond all open for river traffic. The next impediment to sailboats is 110 miles beyond Green Cove, where power lines bar the entrance to Lake Monroe to sailboats with masts higher than 49 feet.
After reviewing Florida bridge-opening statistics, Waterway Guide editors estimated that the number of cruising sailboats that cross the St. Johns River while transiting the ICW is about 5,700 out of a total of 7,000 cruising boats, both sail and power. Editors further estimated that, with proper promotion of St. Johns River attractions, between 850 and 1,200 of these boats would make a detour annually once a high bridge replaces the Shands.
Applying a rule-of-thumb that motoring cruisers (even sailboats tend to motor on inland waters) spend an average $175 a day-and assuming a cruising period of one to three weeks-suggests a range of increased boater spending of between $1 million and $4.4 million annually in the years immediately after a new bridge is built.
Publisher Jack Dozier noted that the St. Johns is one of the safest places in Florida during hurricane season, not because hurricanes won't hit, but because of the absence of tidal surge and plentiful hurricane hole conditions. He predicted boater spending would grow even greater as the marinas and marine services responded to the business demand created by the new bridge.
"Its true that trawlers and other powered vessels can already move up the St. John's past the 45-foot Shands bridge, and they will find some excellent marinas, which we list in the Waterway Guide," Publisher Jack Dozier said. "But I would contend that if more sailboats can go up the river, marine facilities will grow and improve, so more power boats will then have more incentive the see river. In other words, the more boats that explore the St. Johns, the more that will want to."
In letters dated September 11, 2007, Dozier urged Gov. Charlie Crist and Jacksonville Mayor John Peyton to get behind the DOT's recommendation and put the bridge replacement on the fast track for legislative approval and construction. Dozier noted that a tall bridge might well spur the St. Johns to become a new center for the marine industry.
To Crist, Dozier stressed not only the economic benefits to upriver communities such as the City of Palatka, but to the fact that Florida's boater friendly reputation has diminished in recent years because of restrictions on new marina development, limits on anchoring and perception of over-zealous law enforcement. "Florida's willingness to invest in opening more than 100 miles of waterways to thousands of boaters would go along way to bringing back Florida's reputation," he wrote.
To Peyton, Dozier wrote about Jacksonville Landing, the city's showpiece waterfront. "The Landing is a great attraction," Dozier wrote, "But everyone understands that it has yet to reach its full potential. Opening the St. Johns up to bigger sailboats would go along way to accomplishing that. You can fully expect that every new boat that goes up river will stay at the Landing twice, one on the way up and once on the way back."
The St. Johns, which varies in width from two miles to a few hundred feet, is a remarkable river and includes the waters of Lake George, the second largest Florida lake after Okeechobee. It is unsurpassed in opportunities to see wildlife such as manatees, alligators and all sorts of birds, including the American Bald Eagle. The shores are lined with cypress and live oak trees draped in Spanish moss. As you pass Green Cove Springs heading south, the River has been likened to a time machine carrying boats into the "Old Florida" that existed before mass tourism.
The city of Palatka is one of those links to Old Florida. Palatka residents have long resented the Shands Bridge. Palatka Daily News Publisher Randy Starr recalled a hearing last year at which he spoke in favor of tall bridge.
"I railed fairly rudely and loudly that the people of Palatka find the Shands Bridge totally unacceptable in its current form," Starr said. "I told them it should never have been built at the current height. I railed that the safety upgrade done recently (after a car went over the rail) locked the removable span into place so that it can no longer be removed, killing the idea I had for a drawbridge at that section for emergency boat traffic needs. I told them the people of Palatka viewed the Shands Bridge as some kind of conspiracy to cutoff Palatka from commercial river traffic and the rest of the world. I told them it needs to come down or it needs to be refitted to allow larger boats."
Back to top