“We came here to get opinions, not give them,” said Brian Williams of the Florida Department of Transportation.
Williams was speaking at the DOT’s April 30 public hearing at Kirkwood Presbyterian Church, 6101 Cortez Road W., Bradenton, where the DOT took comments and suggestions on what to do with the aging Cortez Bridge from the estimated 200 people that came during the three-hour meeting.
Attendees first filled out a questionnaire on whether they prefer replacing the bridge or continuing rehabilitation projects.
For those wanting a new bridge, the choices included a “high-level fixed bridge,” a choice that was withdrawn by the DOT in 1992 after opposition from Cortez and Bradenton Beach residents and local elected officials.
Other choices were a mid-level drawbridge, a low-level bascule, similar to what exists and “other.”
A comments section also was included on the survey form.
The DOT was careful to state the survey was only the first step — the project, development and environment study phase — of the Cortez Bridge review.
Williams said the PD&E will take about two years to complete and include an environmental impact study of all the bridge options.
When the PD&E is finished, the DOT will present its findings and recommendations at another public hearing.
But already those who fought against a new bridge in the past were adamant that the only sensible thing for the DOT to do is to rehabilitate the bridge.
“If they can rehabilitate the Anna Maria Island Bridge, they can rehabilitate this,” said former Bradenton Beach Mayor Katie Pierola at the meeting.
Linda Molto opposed the previous DOT effort to build a new bridge and hasn’t changed her stance.
“The only sensible thing is rehabilitate,” she said.
Cortez is a federally recognized historic site and the DOT could not take any land from Cortez that’s within the site boundary, Molto said.
But that leaves open the north side of Cortez Road West for the bridge approach if the DOT were to eventually build a larger bridge with wider approaches, said Mariners Cove resident Jim Reschenberger.
Mariners Cove condominiums are on 127th Street West, about 0.4 mile north of the intersection with Cortez Road and the base of the bridge.
“We would definitely fight any attempt at taking our land or nearby land,” he said. “But I’ll probably be long gone by the time they get around to building a new bridge.”
Also at the meeting was Newell Freeman of Mariners Cove. He agreed it would take about 10 years of study and more study, then financing, if a high-rise bridge were to be built.
“Thankfully, I probably won’t be around to see it. The only thing that makes sense is rehabilitation,” Freeman said.
But Pierola said there is an alternative.
She harkened back to a 20-year-old study that said a bridge could be built from the mainland to Coquina Beach by extending 53rd Avenue West to Tidy Island.
“Have an exit at Tidy Island, then continue on to Coquina Beach. It’s the only place in those waters where there’s no seagrasses to worry about,” Pierola said.
Ed Chiles, who owns the BeachHouse Restaurant about 100 yards south of the Cortez Road/Gulf Drive intersection, said he might agree with Pierola if either of his first two preferences were not the one recommended by the DOT in its PD&E.
Chiles, said his restaurant would be severely impacted by construction of a high-rise bridge.
But a new, high bridge — one that doesn’t require a bascule — is still his preference. However, he doesn’t see how the DOT could acquire enough land on the island side for the approaches, so he is more receptive to a mid-level bridge built high enough to allow a majority of boats in the area under the bridge without raising the draw. Failing that, maybe the DOT could extend 53rd Avenue West to Coquina Beach, he suggested.
The entire issue is about traffic, said Molto.
Pierola pointed out that Longboat Key residents must use either the Cortez Bridge or the New Pass Bridge in an evacuation.
Even without that nightmare, she said traffic in Bradenton Beach during the winter visitor season is almost too much for the two-lanes of Gulf Drive and the two-lane Cortez Bridge, which has no emergency lanes.
“So, we’re back to adding a third bridge to the island at Coquina Beach,” Pierola said.
The third bridge concept is favored by Jim Kissick, a Manatee County native and longtime Bradenton Beach resident.
“I’ve got the answer right here,” he said at the meeting, “but they never listen to me.”
Williams, however, was noncommittal about any of the options, including a replacement bridge or a third bridge to another island location.
“We’ve got a long way to go before we start thinking along those lines. We have to see first what the people want,” he said.
An informal survey of around 20 people found about half favored rehabilitation, while others wanted a replacement bridge, either mid-level or low-level. There was little sentiment found for a high-rise bridge.
Even if a new Cortez Bridge is built, Pierola, Chiles, and Freeman claim there’s no way the DOT can close it for two years or even two months without creating a massive traffic problem for Bradenton Beach.
Pierola said closing the Cortez Bridge occurred around 1999 during a rehabilitation project.
“The DOT said it would close Cortez Bridge for a month, but it ended up being two months and it was a mess. Do you think we can trust what they say?” she asked.
Even after the PD&E study, the DOT must address funding the bridge. At present, there are no funds in its five-year plan for design, right of way acquisition or construction. Williams declined to comment on how much each type of bridge would cost.
The DOT’s recommendation for a high-rise bridge to replace the Anna Maria Island Bridge on State Road 64 also has not been funded more than two years after the recommendation was announced.
“This meeting is all for show,” Pierola said.
“At the end of the day,” added Molto, “the DOT will do what it wants and we’ll have to fight all over again.”
Freeman and Reschenberger agreed.
“A rehab would only give us another 10 years of use and eventually a new bridge will be needed. The DOT will do what it wants and it wants to get away from drawbridges,” Reschenberger said.
“I just hope there’s not a big fight when this study is finished,” Freeman said.
Williams said the DOT plans a $4 million maintenance project on the bridge in mid-2014 to keep it operational until a decision is reached on whether it should be replaced or undergo a more thorough rehabilitation.
One of the DOT chart’s at the meeting showed survey results gathered at the February Cortez Commercial
Fishing Festival where 49 percent favored replacement and 48 percent wanted rehabilitation. Three percent were unsure. A total of 355 votes were taken in the survey in February.
The PD&E study is limited to 0.9 mile from 123rd Street in Cortez to the Cortez Road/Gulf Drive/State Road 789 intersection in Bradenton Beach.
The deadline for comments is May 10. Comments may be mailed to the DOT at P.O. Box 1249, Bartow, FL, 33831, or telephoned to 863-519-2304.