DOT presents bridge closure options to Islanders
What a difference a week makes.
Just a week ago, the Florida Department of Transportation was adamant that the planned closure of the Anna Maria Island Bridge - part of its $9.1 million renovation project - would take place as planned in mid-April for 75 days.
But following an outrcy of public opinion against the duration of the closure and the mid-April timeline, not to mention some political pressure from elected officials and safety concerns from fire and emergency service officials, the DOT came Monday to a town meeting at St. Bernard Catholic Church in Holmes Beach with an apology, options and outreach to the community for public comment.
The meeting was headed by the three Island mayors and they were joined on stage in the Welsmiller Activity Center at the church by some DOT officials.
Mostly the estimated 500 people heard from Debbie Hunt, director of operations for the DOT's Bartow office. She outlined the project and asked those in attendance to e-mail their preference from three offered alternatives to the 75-day closure by Nov. 5 in time for the DOT to review the choices and take that information to the Manatee Board of County Commissioners meeting Nov. 6.
One option - DOT Scenario A - would be a full bridge closure in October and November with a full closure of 45 days. There would amount to a nominal increase in cost over the original 75-day closure that the DOT would bear, but Hunt said the contractor, Quinn Construction of Palmetto, said it could reduce the closing time to 45 days if weather didn't interfere. In addition, Hunt said the DOT would give Quinn a "bonus" of $10,000 per day for each day it brought the project in before the 45-day time limit.
Hunt said that the DOT would halt the work and reopen the bridge for Thanksgiving, if necessary.
The closure is necessary, Hunt said, to do repairs and replace mechanics and electrical components of the bascule.
West Manatee Fire Rescue Chief Andy Price and Mark Edenfield of Manatee County Public Safety preferred this option because it offers the quickest solution to get the bridge open full-time for two-lane traffic. Price did note that when the bridge is closed, it will take an additional 19 to 35 minutes to get a mainland fire truck or emergency vehicle from WMFR's west Manatee station on 66th Street to the north end of Anna Maria Island.
In a second option, Scenario B, the bridge would close for 105 days, but one lane would be open by "flagging" traffic - stopping traffic to allow cars to pass in the open lane. Hunt said the concern for this option is that the contractor would still need a 15-day full closure, three three-hour daytime closings and multiple 30-minute closures.
The last option, Scenario C, would also be for 105 days with only one lane open in one direction (either east or west, depending upon the public's choice).
No closure is planned now for April and that was the biggest complaint last week from Island businesses - that the work would interfere with the Island's tourist season, which lasts through April.
Businessman Ed Chiles, who owns the Sandbar, BeachHouse and Mar Vista restaurants, praised the DOT for coming up with "options" when last week they wouldn't consider changing the plan for a mid-April closure. Chiles said that, while he prefers a new bridge, the October-November option would work best for his and other small businesses on the Island. That will have the least impact on Island tourism, he said.
Chiles praised the DOT for listening to concerns from Islanders.
"I believe they are trying to do what's right. We've seen movement and I thank the DOT," he said.
County Commissioner Jane von Hahmann, whose district includes the Island, was amazed at how the DOT reacted to concerns.
"What a difference seven days can make," she exclaimed.
She said the Island can survive a 45-day closure as she and her husband's business, Surfing World West on Cortez Road, had to make it through a 57-day closure several years ago when the Cortez Bridge was closed for repairs.
Many speakers, however, were more interested in a new bridge and gave Hunt a round of applause when she said the DOT has already begun assembling the team that would begin the study for a new bridge. She esimated it will take between five to seven years to get all the studies, design and engineering completed and before construction could begin. There's also the problem of funding, considering that the DOT's budget statewide has been cut by about $1 billion.
Another round of applause went to a speaker who said the Island pays enough of its share of taxes to merit a new bridge.
Other speakers offered their opinions for Plan D, a new bridge ASAP, a ferry between Kingfish Boat Ramp in Holmes Beach and Perico Island, a temporary pontoon bridge, a governor’s declared state of emergency, hiring additional contractors and requiring the repairs to be effected 24/7, and both a high bridge and a low bascule replacement were touted.
The meeting ended with applause for the three Island mayors, John Chappie of Bradenton Beach, Rich Bohnenberger of Holmes Beach and Fran Barford of Anna Maria, for moving rapidly to organize a meeting with the DOT, then a public meeting on the issue and all in less than two weeks. Longboat Key Mayor Jeremy Whatmough was seated with the Island mayors.
Hunt concluded by reminding the public to e-mail their preferences for Scenario A, B or C to email@example.com by Nov. 5.
Time is of the essence.