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Date of Issue: November 15, 2007

DOT to help fund WMFR during rehab

Florida Department of Transportation officials agreed last week to work with local public safety officials to formulate and fund a plan for emergencies during the Anna Maria Island Bridge rehab.

“We will work with the emergency responders to develop a detailed budget,” said Debbie Hunt, the DOT’s operations director in the region. “We are going to be able to provide some additional funding.”

The assistance - as much as $200,000 in state grants - will help agencies such as the West Manatee Fire Rescue District manage its operations during a 45-day closure of the bridge next fall.

The bridge project will be extensive. Expected to begin in early January, the rehab will last about 400 days and involve the total shutdown of the bridge - one of two to the mainland from the Island - during 45 days in October and November 2008.

Island public safety officials, after reviewing several options, endorsed the 45-day closure as they unanimously called for a new bridge.

“The best option would be a replacement of the bridge. We need a new bridge,” said WMFR Chief Andy Price. “The next best option is the shortest closure time possible.”

And that’s the option the DOT decided to go with.

Now, with the rehab apparently eminent, public safety officials are making plans to deal with traffic tie-ups and detours likely to delay aid from the mainland and Longboat Key, as well as delay emergency vehicles leaving the Island for mainland hospitals.

During the closure, traffic to and from the Island - about 17,000 vehicles a day - will be directed along a detour route crossing Cortez Bridge. The detour, for normal traffic, may add 40 minutes to an hour to a trip from Holmes Beach or Anna Maria to northwest Bradenton.

The detour also is expected to cause delays for emergency vehicles leaving the Island or heading toward the Island because of heavy traffic and because Cortez Bridge is a two-lane span with no emergency lane.

WMFR operates three station houses - one in Holmes Beach, one on Cortez Road and another at 67th Street on the mainland, and works Bradenton and Longboat Key to provide mutual aid.

Price, last week, promised district residents to do “everything possible to respond quickly and safely in your time of need.”

He said, “I’ve had people ask me, ‘How are you going to handle this?’ They just can’t imagine getting to an emergency quickly enough.”

Price has said the district will probably add extra personnel to shifts in WMFR Station No. 1 on Marina Drive in Holmes Beach.

Manatee County Emergency Medical Services may also add additional personnel, as well as another ambulance.

Emergency officials and the DOT also are considering establishing a staging area near an Island access point for emergency vehicles and making greater use of medical helicopter evacuations. Presently, services such as Bayflite of St. Petersburg are called in for trauma situations, but they also may be used for medical situations.

In addition to developing a plan for emergency traffic, Hunt said the DOT is working with law enforcement agencies to direct traffic during the bridge shutdown, especially at 75th Street’s intersections with Manatee Avenue and Cortez Road in Bradenton and Gulf Drive and Cortez Road in Bradenton Beach, one of the most congested intersections in the county.

“We are going to have law enforcement officers at intersections during the closure, especially during the first week,” Hunt said. “And at Gulf Drive and Cortez, law enforcement will be there throughout the entire closure.”

Hunt said there will probably be rubbernecking delays throughout the project, but police and detour guides should help move vehicles along.

Also, the bridge will be made accessible in the event of an Island evacuation.

“We will be able to reopen the bridge if there’s a hurricane bearing down,” Hunt said. “If a non-emergency evacuation situation arises, we will work with law enforcement to ensure the islands will be evacuated.”