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DOT to preview Cortez Bridge review at festival

By Mark Young, Islander Reporter

An October crash causes gridlock on the Cortez Bridge and surrounding roadways. The Florida Department of Transportation will have an informational booth promoting the bridge at the Feb. 16-17 Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival. Islander Photo: Mark Young

The Florida Department of Transportation made initial inquiries in September to Cortez residents expressing its desire to begin discussions about the future of the Cortez Bridge.

The DOT sent letters to some members of the Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage about the possibility of scheduling public meetings in the historic fishing village, but there’s been no followup.

DOT communications specialist JoAnn May said public input into a future project will be important.

“We are going to want input from the communities involved,” May said Jan. 24. “Public meetings are planned, but not yet scheduled. When they are scheduled, we will make sure everyone in the community and the media are aware of the meetings.”

Apparently, word that DOT was seeking to begin discussions in September spawned telephone calls to Cortez residents from excited contractors wanting to attend the meetings.

While no meetings are scheduled, the DOT is planning to hand out information about the Cortez Bridge at the Feb. 16-17 Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival.

May said she was unclear of the nature of the materials to be handed out, because there are two separate projects.

“What will be done this year are electrical and mechanical repairs,” said May. “Whether the bridge will be rehabbed or replaced has not yet been determined.”

According to FISH festival committee chair Linda Molto, DOT has requested a booth at the festival.

“They contacted us to set up a booth at the festival and we gave them a space,” said Molto. “I think it will be a good way for DOT to interact with the community.”

The bridge was built in 1956, and underwent a comprehensive rehabilitation project in 1996. The bridge was supposed to be closed for 30 days, but the project dragged on beyond the timeline, causing major traffic issues. Cortez businesses near the bridge entrance reported financial losses during the project.

May said a project development and environmental study on the bridge will begin this year.

“A PDE study is planned to start soon, which will determine if rehabilitation is possible or if a replacement bridge needs to be built,” said May, who noted an engineering firm for the study has been hired.

This isn’t the first time that a focus on the Cortez Bridge has surfaced.

A study was completed in the early 1990s that called for a larger, higher fixed-span bridge, but public outcry helped bring the mega-bridge proposal to a halt. What officially ended the proposal for a large bridge, according to Molto, was the designation of the village of Cortez as an historic district.

Molto said in September that a “federal project cannot impact another federal project, and we are a national registered historic district.”

The 1990s study to build a larger bridge would have a bridge entrance as far back as 123rd Street West and would dead end every street in between, Molto said, adding that it would certainly be a significant impact to the historic village.

The plan to acquire numerous properties in Cortez, as well as Bradenton Beach, by eminent domain was halted and DOT moved forward on a 1996 rehab.

The recent announcement of a new bridge study drew concern from Manatee County Commissioners John Chappie and Carol Whitmore, former mayors of Bradenton Beach and Holmes Beach respectively.

Both said any project resembling the one previously proposed would destroy the communities of Cortez and Bradenton Beach.

Bradenton Beach commissioners have been bracing for the DOT’s project proposal. Commissioner Jan Vosburgh and Vice Mayor Ed Straight listed the bridge project among their biggest future concerns during the 2012 election cycle.

As of press time, May was unable to confirm the nature of materials to be handed out at the festival.

However, according to festival committee minutes, the DOT booth will be a “Cortez Bridge rehabilitation exhibit.”

According to the DOT website, the Cortez Bridge has a 75.65 health rating. DOT guidelines state a health rating below 85 indicates repairs are needed.

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