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Date of Issue: November 22, 2007

Coast Guard prepping for bridge rehab

The Coast Guard last week signaled that the federal agency already is working with state and local officials to reduce traffic congestion during next year’s Anna Maria Island Bridge rehab.

The Florida Department of Transportation projects that a 400-day rehab of the bridge will need to include about 45 days of full bridge closure next fall, as well as three three-hour closures earlier in the project. The rehab work is set to begin in early January.

A major concern about closing the Anna Maria Island Bridge to traffic next October and November is the heavy volume of vehicles that will be directed from Manatee Avenue to Cortez Road to the Cortez drawbridge.

The DOT is working with local law enforcement agencies to post officers to direct traffic at the Cortez and Gulf Drive intersection in Bradenton Beach, as well as provide directions along the detour route.

Another key, according to the DOT and the Island mayors, is working with the Coast Guard on the best schedule for opening the Cortez drawbridge.

“It could be on demand,” said Michael Lieberum, bridge specialist with the Coast Guard’s District 7 office in Miami. “It could be on a 20-minute schedule. It could be on a 30-minute schedule. We just need to know what’s going to be best for everyone.”

Federal law guarantees vessels passage on U.S. waters, including the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, which the bridges from Anna Maria Island to the mainland span.

But, said Lieberum, part of the Coast Guard’s job is finding the best ways for vessels to navigate waterways while vehicles navigate bridges.

“The U.S. Coast Guard bridge branch does our best to balance the needs of transportation, that includes vehicle and vessel traffic,” Lieberum said.

There are priorities — commercial barge and tug traffic on U.S. waterways cannot be halted, nor can military vessels.

But Lieberum emphasized the temporary nature of a schedule change for the Cortez bridge. “The big thing is, we’ve got to put a balance on everything that’s going on. We are talking only temporary. So we just need to figure out something to assist people in the area, which is going to be clogged with cars.”

Deciding what’s best, he said, requires a review of current traffic patterns — over the drawbridge and under the drawbridge — at the Cortez and Anna Maria Island spans.

“All we know now is, traffic is going to increase” at Cortez, Lieberum said.

Currently the Anna Maria Island and Cortez bridges open on signal, except from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., when the draw opens 20 minutes after the hour, 40 minutes after the hour and on the hour. The routine changes from January through May.

The Coast Guard implemented that schedule in response to a request from Island mayors.

That the Coast Guard is seeking to help alleviate traffic congestion during the AMI Bridge closure put some Island commuters at ease last week.

“That’s a relief, because I heard they were a tough sell,” said Paula Grayson of Holmes Beach as she gassed up her car at the Citgo on Gulf Drive. Grayson drives across the Anna Maria Island Bridge at least twice a day to a job in downtown Bradenton. “I’ll be honest. I rent here, no investment, and I was thinking of looking for a place downtown to avoid the hassle.”

Boaters also said they want government officials to do their best to reduce traffic delays.

“I know one thing, I’d rather be delayed on my boat out on the water than caught in a huge traffic jam trying to get it into the water,” said Nick Moffitt, “captain” of the Green Eyed Lady, which he set into the water in Bradenton Beach.

More immediate for the travelers are plans to close the AMI bridge from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. Dec. 18, for some pre-rehab work, including the removal of asbestos.

“That was something they wanted to do before they got started,” Lieberum said.