The wait sure was worth it!
The majestic, new Tom Staed Veterans Memorial Bridge that crosses over the picturesque Halifax River to connect East Volusia’s mainland with its world-famous barrier island beaches is open for business. A replacement for the old bascule drawbridge that was there for more than 60 years, the vehicle lanes on the new high-level, multi-arch concrete span in Daytona Beach got the green light on Thursday for traffic to start flowing. The launch started at about 8:30 a.m. with a vehicle processional over the bridge that included Volusia County Council members past and present as well as representatives from the City of Daytona Beach, local veterans groups, the Daytona Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Daytona Beach Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. Shelldon, the Daytona Tortugas’ lovable mascot, also joined the processional.
Thursday’s inaugural drive-over began with County Council member Billie Wheeler and her predecessor, former council member Josh Wagner, jointly removing the final construction barrier to clear the path for the processional to start. Credited with helping to get the bridge project started while on the council, Wagner didn’t want to wait a moment longer for the travel lanes to open up. So he kept his remarks extremely brief and to the point.
“This is for the veterans of our country. Thank you. Let’s open it up,” Wagner said as he and Wheeler carted off the barricade to let the processional – 20 personal vehicles, three motorcycles and two Daytona Beach fire vehicles – begin the maiden voyage over the bridge.
The honor of leading the pack as the first car over the bridge was given to Tom Staed’s widow, Barbara Staed, who was accompanied by her daughter and two grandchildren. It took all of about six minutes for the slow-moving processional to make it from the west end of the bridge on the mainland to the east end on the beachside. Just a few minutes later, at about 8:42 a.m., the all clear was given for the public to start driving over the bridge. And vehicles were already lined up and ready to make the historic voyage. For many, removal of the construction barricades and the sight of cars motoring across the new span was cause for celebration.
“To see those vehicles crossing the bridge for the very first time was a genuinely exciting moment,” said Wheeler, who along with County Chair Ed Kelley were in the third car over the bridge. “This is a huge milestone for Volusia County and the Daytona Beach area. The structure is really quite visually stunning in its design and appearance and should be a real source of pride for the community.”
The eastbound drive along East Orange Avenue and across the 1,885-foot-long bridge treats motorists to views of some of the area’s most recognizable landmarks, including Jackie Robinson Ballpark, the Volusia County Courthouse Annex and the Halifax River Yacht Club. Thursday was the first time that motorists have been able to make the complete drive since June 6, 2016, when the beginning of the demolition of the old bridge signaled the official start of the approximately $48 million project. The federal government is picking up the tab for the entire cost.
The bridge extends out along East Orange Avenue on the mainland and Silver Beach Avenue on the beachside and is the southern most of the multiple spans that cross over the Intracoastal Waterway in Daytona Beach as key transportation links to the county’s coastal areas. As the old Orange Avenue bridge built in 1954 eventually became functionally obsolete, officials started planning for its replacement more than a decade ago.
The county commissioned feasibility studies looking at various options and enlisted community input during public meetings to help decide the final look of the new bridge. Designed to be a commemorative for the country’s military, the project was known for years as the Veterans Memorial Bridge. Then, in 2013, the span got its official name: the Tom Staed Veterans Memorial Bridge in honor of Staed, a prominent area hotelier and Korean War veteran who passed away that same year. The bridge features plaques at 28 scenic overlooks commemorating conflicts in America’s military history. In addition to the scenic overlooks and the visually striking series of grand arches, other features include sidewalks, fishing piers on both sides of the river and dramatic night lighting. Plans also call for a memorial plaza honoring local veterans to be built at the northwest base of the bridge.
In addition to the span itself, the project also included road improvements on both sides of the bridge beginning just west of City Island Parkway on the mainland side to just west of South Peninsula Drive on the beachside – for a total project length of just over six-tenths of a mile. Thursday’s ceremony was a somewhat scaled back event due to social distancing guidelines and other limitations imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. A more formal grand opening ceremony for the bridge will be planned in the future.