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Date of Issue: November 01, 2007

FDOT reviewing bridge closure

Debbie Hunt, director of operations for the Florida Department of Transportation's District One, answers a question from the Manatee County Board of Commissioners during a discussion on the renovation of the Anna Maria Island Bridge. Stanley M. Cann, DOT District One secretary, also attended the Oct. 23 meeting at the Manatee County Administration Building in Bradenton. Islander Photos: Lisa Neff

State transportation officials used words like “potential” and “proposed” last week in referring to the closure of the Anna Maria Island Bridge for 45-75 days in 2008.

They also expressed apologies for failing to consult local officials on the $9.1 million rehabilitation of the bridge and, most importantly, the plan to shut down the 50-year-old span traversed by about 14,000 vehicles a day.

The Florida Department of Transportation indicated last spring that the bridge would incur some closures, but details of the plan came out about two weeks ago, catching many Island and Manatee County officials by surprise.

The Island mayors called a town meeting for Monday, Oct. 29, which was to take place at St. Bernard Catholic Church in Holmes Beach as The Islander went to press.

DOT officials also were called into numerous discussions with local officials, including a meeting with the Island mayors Oct. 24 and a well-attended meeting of the Manatee County Board of Commissioners Oct. 23 at the county administration building in Bradenton.

Representation from the Island included Anna Maria Mayor Fran Barford, Holmes Beach Mayor Rich Bohnenberger, Bradenton Beach Mayor John Chappie, Bradenton Beach Commissioner Michael Pierce, West Manatee Fire Rescue Chief Andy Price and Deputy Chief Brett Pollock, Holmes Beach Police Chief Jay Romine and Lt. Dale Stephenson, restaurant owner Ed Chiles, and a number of residents.

During the meeting, DOT officials apologized for the communication breakdown and indicated an eagerness to work with local officials on the 400-day rehab project, which has already been contracted to a Palmetto firm and scheduled to start Jan. 7, 2008.

The work would include repairing the concrete and steel, rebalancing the span, renovating the control house and replacing the electrical system to extend the service of the bridge 10-15 years and eliminate a need to post weight restrictions, said Debbie Hunt, the operations director for the DOT’s district office in Bartow.

The rehab would not increase the bridge’s traffic capacity, nor would it provide safety improvements, according to Hunt.

She put a target date for the closure at mid-April, adding that the contractor would have an incentive to shorten the closure period - a bonus of $15,000 per day for finishing before deadline.

“This closure is necessary,” she said. “It’s one of the infrequent inconveniences that go along with living on a barrier island.”

Hunt, apologizing, also said, “We didn’t communicate sooner.”

Most of the commissioners accepted Hunt’s apology. “Everyone makes a mistake,” said Commissioner Carol Whitmore. “We need to move forward.”

Commissioner Joe McClash, however, did not accept the apology, calling it “nice” but “unacceptable.”

“That apology isn’t going to get us out of the nightmare that’s being presented,” McClash said, urging a full review of the DOT’s plans and its rationale for the rehab, versus pursuit of a new bridge, which the DOT sought more than a decade ago.

In the 1990s, the DOT pursued construction of a fixed-span bridge to replace the drawbridge. That effort, challenged by a number of local groups, failed, ending with a hearing officer’s order to deny the project.

McClash referred to that period as the “bridge fiasco” and said the time has come to replace the structure.

“Let’s get on the band wagon and replace this bridge,” McClash said. “I’m pretty sure this is the worst drawbridge in the state.”

McClash made a motion to support studying a new bridge, which the commission passed unanimously.

“What I’m hearing is there is a trigger point for a new bridge,” said Commissioner Jane von Hahmann. “I think we’re moving toward that trigger point.”

Comments from the audience echoed commissioners’ statements.

Regarding the closure, Barford said it “could be the demise of my city.”

Price added that the closure could increase emergency response times to the north end of the Island to 17-25 minutes.

Chiles said the closure would send Island traffic to the Cortez Bridge and the Cortez Road intersection at Gulf Drive - a nightmare location. A one-day construction project at the intersection earlier this year caused back-ups for miles on the Island, on Longboat Key and in Cortez. Chiles said a bridge closure would be that disaster multiplied.

“We have a lot of small businesses on the Island that this may be (their) death knell,” he said.

Chiles suggested the DOT scrap or scale back the bridge rehab and get to work on a new bridge.

“Let’s build a new bridge that we need for the next 50 years,” he said, adding, “I don’t want to see us throw good money after bad.”

And Chiles promised the DOT, which was apparently somewhat shell-shocked from the last campaign for a new bridge, community support. The last proposed bridge to Anna Maria Island met with vocal opposition from a “squeaky wheel” group that “sucked the oxygen out of a room,” Chiles said. On the next go around, he promised a vocal majority in favor of a new bridge, estimated to cost $50-$75 million.

Stanley Cann, secretary of DOT District One, said a study on a new bridge would begin. “We want to get out there and build a new one ... whatever that may be,” he said.

He also said his staff would consider some of the proposed options regarding the closure, including a suggestion that the contractor work 24/7 during the bridge shutdown, that at least one lane remain open during the work, and that the scheduling of the shutdown take place in the late fall and early winter instead of spring.

Hunt said the DOT took into consideration the tourist and hurricane seasons when it recommended closing the bridge in April.

But Larry White, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the DOT hotel occupancy averages on Anna Maria Island indicated the tourism business peaks in April, around Easter time.

White’s numbers showed the average occupancy for winter 2005-06 was 32.5 percent, with November being the highest month at 40.7 percent.

For spring 2006, the average occupancy rate was 55.7 percent, with April at 60.5 percent, and May and June at 53 percent.

The figures were similar for winter 2006-07, with an average occupancy of 32.6 percent, and for spring 2007, with an average occupancy of 57.8 percent.

Changing the closure time would provide another seven months of planning, in addition to better serving the Island businesses, White said

He added, “I’m sure we all want a new bridge. I’m sure we want a safe bridge.”

After the county commission meeting, Bohnenberger said he heard from the DOT a willingness to work with the community on the style and scale of a new bridge. “Before,” the mayor said, “they were steadfast on a 65-foot, fixed-span bridge, but now maybe not?”

A buzz over a new bridge vs. an old bridge also could be overheard on the Island - in city commission chambers, in the aisles at the Publix Super Market, at the counter in the Pine Avenue General Store, at the bar in the Waterfront Restaurant, and on the benches at the newly refurbished Bradenton Beach City Pier, which once was the old Cortez Bridge.

“Well, I just think maybe it’s time for a new bridge,” said Natalie Chambers, spending a rainy afternoon at the Bridge Street pier. “But I guess they couldn’t even get a fishing pier out of the old one.”

Chambers’ friend, Amy Johnston, took the opposing view. “I don’t think we should build a new bridge just to avoid shutting down the old one for repairs,” Johnston said. “It’s not an either-or issue.”