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Date of Issue: October 25, 2007

Island mayors: Time for new bridge?

Stung by the Florida Department of Transportation’s dramatic announcement that it will close the Anna Maria Island Bridge for 75 days, the mayors of the three Island cities, along with the Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce, have organized a public meeting at 5 p.m. Monday, Oct. 29. The agenda includes a wide range of issues related to the bridge closure, including whether or not the time may have arrived for a new bridge.

Bradenton Beach Mayor John Chappie said the Oct. 29 meeting at St. Bernard Catholic Church will be to “discuss issues and options for the Island on how to deal with the closure and its effect on Island businesses.”

Chamber executive director Mary Ann Brockman said she has had a number of calls from members inquiring about the exact details of the closure and concerned about its effect on their business.

“There’s a major concern about the economic impact the closure will have and people want to know what the chamber can do,” she said. “One major question is how many people who would normally come to the Island and spend money won’t come because the bridge is closed?”

That’s a question that may not be answered until the bridge actually closes, but Island business owners, including a representative from Publix, are expected to air their views at the meeting.

Also on the “invite” list will be Chris Piazza from the DOT to explain the department’s reasoning behind the closure. His answers aren’t likely to appease those who depend upon a functioning bridge for their livelihood or safety.

“He’ll be walking into a hot bed,” said Anna Maria Mayor Fran Barford.

Perhaps, said Holmes Beach Mayor Rich Bohnenberger, but the DOT has to do some fancy explaining. It seems the DOT announcement caught him by surprise.

“Their initial announcement was that there would be one-lane traffic with periodic closings, probably at night. Now, they say that closure will be 75 days. That’s an issue,” he said.

But there’s more than just concern for Island business, said Barford.

“We have to be concerned about health, safety and welfare,” she noted, particularly in getting emergency vehicles such as fire engines and ambulances within a reasonable time from the mainland to Holmes Beach and Anna Maria. There’s also an issue with the safety of students, she noted. Barford will invite Manatee County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Roger Dearing to address the issue of transportation of students to and from mainland schools.

Another area of concern is how much congestion will be created on the Cortez Bridge and at the Cortez Road-Gulf Drive intersection.

Chappie questioned the reasoning behind spending $10 million for a bridge that has been deemed “functionally obsolete” by the DOT. At a time when governments across Florida are concerned with saving money and cutting costs, $10 million might be a waste. The time may have come to discuss a new bridge, rather than fixing one that’s “obsolete,” he indicated.

Chappie noted that 10 years ago, Islanders successfully fought a DOT proposal to replace the current bridge with a 65-foot-clearance, fixed-span structure.

“But times have changed,” he said, particularly the economics of Anna Maria Island. “It may be time to consider a new bridge.”

Although past experience indicates that idea is not likely to gain any favor with the DOT or a number of Island residents, indicated Chappie, reality has to be faced.

When the Cortez Bridge closed for several weeks for repairs about 10 years ago, said Brockman, she understood that Cortez was “like a ghost town,” and a number of businesses closed.

The Oct. 29 meeting will consider if that’s likely to happen on Anna Maria Island during the 75 days the bridge will be closed.

In addition to the DOT, representatives to be invited include the Manatee-Sarasota Metropolitan Planning Organization, state Rep. Bill Galvano and state Sen. Mike Bennett, Florida Power & Light, Verizon, Waste Management Inc. and Manatee County emergency services.

Any member of the public will be allowed to speak at the meeting, said Barford, especially those who represent a group or organization. The three mayors will chair the meeting.

Members of the public who wish to comment but cannot attend the Oct. 29 meeting can put comments in writing and submit them to their respective city hall or take them to the chamber of commerce office in Holmes Beach.