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Date of Issue: November 08, 2007

Message signs to be employed for bridge project

New electronic message signs are in place on Anna Maria Island but are still being tested on major roads here and near intersections at Manatee Avenue and 75th Street and Cortez Road and 75th Street in Bradenton. Public safety officials expect the message boards will become key communication devices in an emergency, as well as during a rehab of the Anna Maria Island Bridge. Islander Photo: Lisa Neff

Bart O’Connor looked up at the electronic sign by the side of Manatee Avenue, squinting to read the message in yellow lights.

“FDOT test” was the message he read on the sign anchored to a bright, new steel pole.

“Part of the bridge project, huh?” he asked.

No, it’s just a fortunate coincidence that the long-awaited “Advanced Traveler Information Signs” were put into place this fall and will be available for use when the Florida Department of Transportation begins its $9.1 million rehab of Anna Maria Island Bridge.

The informational signs were intended to be used in the event of an emergency, such as a storm evacuation. But Vincent Canna, project manager with Manatee County, said no doubt the signs will be useful when the bridge project begins next year.

Six signs are in place - one on Manatee Avenue near Gulf Drive and another on northbound Gulf Drive near East Bay Boulevard in Holmes Beach, at Coquina Beach, and in Bradenton at 75th Street south of Cortez Road, on Cortez Road east of 75th Street and on Manatee Avenue east of 75th Street.

Canna said the signs contain pre-programmed messages for storm-related information, including evacuation notices, as well as traffic and parking messages.

He predicted the signs, which cost about $800,000, would be operating before Thanksgiving.

“We’re in what they call the burn-in phase,” Canna said. “We’re making sure everything is wired right.”

That phase will probably be completed the middle of this month, at about the same time local law enforcement officers and dispatchers undergo training to send messages to the signs.

“Each sign is capable of being able to display its own message,” said Canna, who worked on the project with the DOT and a contractor. “Messages will not be identical.”

Public safety officials on the Island seemed impressed with the signs and eager to see them put to use.

“We pushed for them and I think they came out real good,” Holmes Beach Police Chief Jay Romine said in reference to the signs, two of which are in his city.

“Anything that can help route traffic is much better for us,” said Romine.

Romine and other emergency officials went into rapid response when the DOT in early October announced it plans to shut down the Anna Maria Island Bridge for rehab.

But by last week, public safety officials were in somewhat of a hold pattern.

State transportation officials were reviewing several options for the bridge - one to close the structure for 45 days and two offering a shorter shutdown but a lengthy period with one lane closed.

Bradenton Beach, Holmes Beach and Longboat Key police departments, West Manatee and Longboat Key fire rescue departments, the Manatee County’s Sheriff’s Office and emergency medical services officials agreed that once the DOT decides its course for the bridge work, numerous matters must be decided:

  • How to budget for extra expenses, including personnel.
  • How to control traffic near the bridge.
  • How to best move vehicles on and off the Island.
  • How to best respond to emergencies on the Island, especially on the north end.
  • Whether to increase the use of expensive helicopter services for medical calls.
  • Whether to stage emergency vehicles or wreckers near the entrance to the Island.

Holmes Beach Police Lt. Dale Stephenson said that during a previous bridge project, a tow truck or wrecker was stationed nearby for quick responses to crashes in order to clear congested roads.

“I think that’s a great idea,” he said.

Stephenson also recalled that a landing zone was set up for emergency medical response during the duration of the bridge project.

“It’s critical that we have that,” said Larry Leinhauser of the Manatee County Department of Public Safety, adding that EMS may place a second ambulance on the Island during the heaviest part of the rehab.

One of Leinhauser’s more serious concerns is how to best use the medical-evacuation services of the Bayflite. Usually Bayflite is called to the Island for trauma cases, not regular medical cases. Bayflite will respond to medical cases, but the service can be costly for the patient - $8,000 to $10,000 - and is not covered by Medicaid.

“My concern is with if we need to get to someone and we can’t,” Leinhauser said. “We can’t jeopardize public safety.”

His concern was shared by north-enders, including several winter residents who flew to the area last week just to attend an Oct. 29 town meeting on the bridge.

“What I love about the north end of the Island is the seclusion,” said Vicki Dean, who splits her year between Milwaukee and Anna Maria. “But that’s what scares me about it now. Up north, I’m never five minutes from emergency help.”

Dean’s husband, Paul, suffered a heart attack three years ago that put him in a life-or-death situation at home. “That has to weigh into your consideration when you live somewhere,” Vicki Dean said. “How soon can he get help if he needs it?”