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Date of Issue: November 22, 2007

Bridge future: clear but cloudy

The future of the Anna Maria Island Bridge renovation project appears clear, according to representatives of the Florida Department of Transportation, elected officials and business leaders involved in the DOT's recent about-face on closing the bridge in April for the project.

DOT spokesperson Andrea Clarke said the DOT is still in the process of re-negotiating the $9.1 million contract with Quinn Construction of Palmetto to reflect an October bridge closing rather than April, as was originally planned. Another change to the contract is the 45-day bridge closure period, rather than 75 days.

But the project is still scheduled to begin Jan. 7, 2008, said Clarke, although the DOT now plans on a 45-day bridge closure from October through November, she said.

State rep. Bill Galvano said that he's talked to the DOT and will do everything he can to ensure that agency sticks to its plan to have the 45-day closure in October. In fact, Galvano said he's lobbying for a closure of less than 45 days, but it's still too early to determine from talks with the contractor if that's a possibility.

Where Galvano believes he can be more effective is in getting money budgeted for a feasibility study to begin as soon as possible on a new bridge.

"I've already talked to some of my colleagues and I need to impress upon them that we find money for a study in the next budget," he said. "But dollars are tight," Galvano acknowledged.

"I need to convince my colleagues that a temporary fix of Anna Maria Island Bridge is not the best use of tax dollars. That's why I'm working on getting the process started now for a new bridge."

Getting a new bridge is not likely to be quick or easy. Deborah Hunt of the DOT's Bartow office has estimated a new bridge is about five to seven years away "at the earliest," and that's if everything lines up perfectly. A better estimate would be a new $70-90 million bridge in about 10-15 years.

Galvano added that he's also keeping in touch with the DOT to ensure it has the latest and best information about Anna Maria Island and the Island's tourist season. DOT officials had said they were “surprised” to learn that the Island's tourist season doesn't end with Easter but continues through to the end of April.

The DOT based its decision to close the bridge for 75 days starting April 9, because of erroneous information it received that the tourist season in Manatee County would be over by that date.

Galvano doesn't want to "finger-point" as to how or from whom the DOT obtained that information and why it failed to inform area elected officials promptly of the planned April bridge closing last July when it awarded the contract to Quinn Construction of Palmetto, at least not now. But he does want to make sure the DOT doesn’t get further out of touch with the Island.

“I’ll do whatever I can to help. I’m going to stay in touch with the DOT about this project on a regular basis,” he pledged.

Manatee County Commissioner Joe McClash, however, believes that at some point the DOT must be held accountable for its actions and has called its miscommunication tactics “unacceptable,” even after Hunt apologized for taking Manatee elected officials out of the information loop regarding the closure plans.

Businessman Ed Chiles, who owns two restaurants on Anna Maria Island and one on Longboat Key, doesn’t want to point blame, he just wants to get the job done - and quickly.

He’s accepted the 45-day closure in October as better for the Island than the originally plan. But he wants the job done as quickly as possible and has called for Quinn to work around-the-clock.

"I want them to look into working 24/7 on this project. I just want the bridge repairs to go as quickly as possible so we can get the process for a new bridge rolling," he said.

A new bridge is Chiles’ most favored option, one that appears to have gained a groundswell of support since the DOT announced in late October that repair plans included closing the bridge for 75 days starting in April.

While public opinion and some good, old-fashioned political arm pressure forced the DOT to backtrack quickly on that plan, Chiles, along with Galvano and McClash, don’t want the DOT to forget about moving forward with plans for a new bridge.

Hunt said the DOT isn’t forgetting, but these things take time.

“If we could build it in three years, we would,” she said. “But we can’t.”

The AMI Bridge, similar to the Cortez Bridge, was deemed “functionally obsolete” but “structurally sound” by DOT inspectors earlier this year.

The only option remaining to the DOT until a new bridge can be built are the $9.1 million in repairs to the current structure that should extend its lifespan another 10 to 15 years, Hunt said.

“It would be a shame and a waste of taxpayer money if we didn’t have a new bridge in place in 10 years,” Chiles maintained. I’d like to see it a lot sooner.”