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Date of Issue: April 01, 2009

Bridge hearing draws both sides of issue

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Holmes Beach Mayor Rich Bohnenberger, left, examines drawings of the various options for a replacement for the Anna Maria Island Bridge with Marlon Bizzera of the Florida Department of Transportation. Islander Photo: Rick Catlin

The Florida Department of Transportation’s third public hearing on a replacement for the Anna Maria Island Bridge attracted a somewhat sparse but vocal gathering March 26 at St. Bernard Catholic Church.

An estimated 80 people attended the hearing, a far cry from the nearly 400 who went to a DOT meeting in October 2007 to hear the DOT announce its then $9.5 million rehabilitation of the bridge. At that meeting, the DOT said it would immediately begin plans for a study of a replacement for the bridge.

The March 26 public hearing was about evenly divided between those who favor a replacement bridge and those who want the DOT to continue to rehabilitate the current structure.

Many of those opposed to a replacement bridge said they were members of the Save Anna Maria Inc. organization.

 SAM was formed in the mid-1990s and was instrumental in successfully opposing a DOT proposal then to replace the bridge with a high-rise structure.

Some members of SAM believe the DOT has already decided to replace the current bridge with a 65-foot-high, fixed-span structure, a charge the DOT has consistently denied.

SAM president Ursula Stemm accused the Manatee County Board of Commissioners of “working together with the DOT to get a fixed-span bridge for Manatee Avenue.”

She questioned the need for a replacement bridge, noting that the current bridge is working fine.

“Why is this bridge so important?” she asked.

Stemm said the Island cannot accommodate more traffic, which a replacement bridge is sure to bring. It’s time to consider the residents, she said.

Stemm also asked if the DOT had performed a full environmental impact study of a replacement bridge.

Thomas Mitchell said the current drawbridge is a “barrier to crime and urban sprawl,” and alleged that Longboat Key was bringing its problems to the DOT for a solution.

A replacement bridge will only make it easier for people to get on and off the Island and attract more people to come live on the Island, he indicated.

Mitchell said a high-rise bridge is a mega-bridge and would have a negative impact on the Island.

“Let’s not get bamboozled into something that is being forced upon us by unseen forces,” he said.

Retired engineer Bob Roses, however, said he favored a 65-foot-high bridge because nearly all sailboats will be able to pass safely under the span. In addition, he said the water runoff from such a bridge is easier to control.

The Sunshine Skyway Bridge is a mega-bridge, not this bridge, he said. “But 65 feet is the right bridge,” Roses concluded.

Others such as Sam Walmister said a low bridge is more practical as the replacement option because of the lower wind effect upon vehicles using the structure.

Additionally, a low bridge blends in with the “flavor and ambiance of Anna Maria Island.”

He suggested the DOT build a toll bridge to offset the cost of a replacement structure.

Other members of SAM joined Stemm and Mitchell in opposition to any new bridge.

But other members of the public spoke in favor of a high-rise replacement.

“A high-rise bridge is the only way to go,” said Ken Phillips.

Holmes Beach Mayor Rich Bohnenberger, City Commissioner Sandy Haas-Martens and Bradenton Beach Mayor Mike Pierce all favor a fixed-span, high-rise structure.

Manatee County Commissioner Carol Whitmore said Stemm’s accusation that the commission was working with the DOT for a high-rise bridge was “totally false,” while Commissioner John Chappie said Stemm’s charges were “totally untrue.”

Whitmore said the county commission has gone on record as favoring a replacement bridge, but it does not favor any one style over another and has not worked with the DOT to push for a high-rise bridge.

“But some people will believe anything,” she said.

DOT District 1 Secretary Stan Cann said there is “no way” Stemm’s accusation is true.

“We at the DOT are working with everyone to determine what height bridge should be built, if any bridge should be built.”

Chris Piazza, the DOT’s project manager for the study of a replacement bridge, emphasized that among the choices available to the DOT is a “no-build” option.

A DOT video presentation highlighted the DOT’s efforts to date, the project development and environmental study and the four bridge options available.

Piazza invited the public to fill out a DOT survey on preferred options and also offer comments for the record.

 The choices for the future of the AMI Bridge are:

• A 21.5-foot-high bascule that will be similar in style to the current bridge and will clear the same number of boats.

• A 45-foot-high bascule that will clear 38 percent of boat traffic without the bascule being raised.

A 65-foot-high, fixed-span structure that will allow 99 percent of all boat traffic on the Intracoastal Waterway to pass under its height.

A no-build option that will keep the current AMI Bridge intact for an estimated 10-15 years before it would have to undergo another major rehabilitation effort. At the end of that rehabilitation project, the bridge would have to be replaced, the DOT said.

All the build options are for a two-lane roadway with one or two sidewalks.

The options also give the public a choice of a north or south alignment from the current structure.

The DOT also said recreational fishing would be permitted on a replacement bridge, but the old AMI Bridge would be torn down after any replacement bridge is operational.

 Before the DOT makes any recommendation, Piazza said it still has to present its study of a new bridge and accompanying public comments to other governmental organizations, such as the Manatee County Commission, the Island Transportation and Planning Organization and the Sarasota-Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization.

He said the DOT will announce its recommendation at the same time it is forwarding its report to the U.S. Coast Guard, the final authority on any new bridge on the Intracoastal Waterway. Piazza reaffirmed the DOT could still recommend the ‘no-build’ option.

The DOT recommendation could be announced in late June, Piazza said.

Even if the DOT recommends a replacement bridge, it would take a minimum of eight to 10 years before any funding is in place for the start of construction. And that’s a “fast-track” estimate, Piazza has said.

A more reasonable estimate would be 10 to 15 years before any work begins on a replacement bridge project.

At present, there is no funding in the DOT’s five-year work plan program for any design, right-of-way acquisition or construction of a replacement bridge.

The public can still make an official comment on a replacement bridge by going online to www.annamariaislandbridge.com, calling 863-519-2293 or by mailing the DOT at P.O. Box 1249, Bartow FL 33831.

The DOT said last week that all comments must be received or postmarked no later than April 9 to become part of the official record.