The Three-Mile Bridge has spanned the watery expanse of Pensacola Bay for decades. Rising from the depths with an arched back, it is part of the landscape. As much as the sunrise and the sunset and the whitecaps lapping gently underneath.
Generations of locals and visitors have traversed it. Have memorized the rhythm of its segmented body. Have crested its hump and watched a pink horizon fade in the rearview mirror.
The folks at The Bridge Bar in Gulf Breeze are intimately familiar with the structure. The restaurant sits at the base of the bridge.
With the state of Florida looking to replace the existing bay bridge, owner Nick Wheatley isn’t certain about the Bridge Bar’s future.
“I’m not really sure it’s going to survive it,” Wheatley said. “I think it’s probably going to end up dying a slow death.”
In 2010, the Florida Department of Transportation declared the bay bridge as structurally deficient and in need of replacement. The bridge—erected in 1960 and officially dubbed the Phillip Dane Beall, Sr., Memorial Bridge—was nearing the end of its design lifespan.
Since then, the state has been studying how best to replace the bridge. Engineering and environmental analysis were conducted. Public meetings were held. Routes were discussed.
“Basically,” FDOT spokesman Ian Satter explained, “it determines everything from social, environmental and economic impacts that go along with the project.”
That phase is winding down. Route options have been narrowed—“right now we’re looking at east-central and west-central”—and next comes a public hearing, tentatively set for March. Finally the project will be bid-out, designed and built.
Following the public hearing and final decision on the route, FDOT is shooting for a 1,500-day timeframe from start to finish.
“That’s what we’re estimating,” Satter said.
Recently, Florida Senate President Don Gaetz visited Panhandle communities to announce upcoming transportation funding for Northwest Florida. The big deal during his Pensacola stop: $595.6 million for a new, toll-free bay bridge.
Local officials, particularly ones in Gulf Breeze, were squeamish at the thought of saddling a new bridge with a toll.
“I think it would have had a ripple effect,” Gulf Breeze City Manager Buzz Eddy said of the toll prospect.
And while toll-fears have been calmed, there are still questions about the route. Particularly at the Bridge Bar.
“I think the Bridge Bar is going to be the only business directly affected by it,” said Wheatley.
The bar, as well as an undeveloped parcel currently used as a parking lot for the establishment, sits on the tip of the spear. A proposed flyover ramp exiting the bridge will route drivers within a hair of the establishment.
“You’re basically going to be looking at the edge of the interstate at the Bridge Bar,” Wheatley said.
In addition to spoiling development plans for the parking area, the bar owner is concerned that his current endeavors will also be negatively impacted by the new bridge.
“If it’s boxed in by interstate and concrete,” Wheatley said, “the answer is yes, it will be shut down.”
But those possible pains are still a couple of years away at the soonest. For now, the Bridge Bar still has its view.
“We’re just gonna keep our heads up,” Wheatley said, adding that he knows the state will eventually come knocking to inquire about his property at the base of the Three Mile Bridge. “They’re gonna get it either way if they want it—if they want it, they’re gonna take it.”