Mayors question bridge study need

Island mayors shared no enthusiasm for the Florida Department of Transportation’s announcement that it plans a $1.5 million project development and environmental study to determine a replacement for the Cortez Bridge.

“It’s a total waste of taxpayer money,” said Bradenton Beach Mayor Bob Bartelt, whose city would be most affected by any new bridge construction.

“You don’t need a survey to tell you that Islanders and Cortez residents don’t want a high-rise bridge, they want the same type of bridge as now. And it’s the only bridge style that fits the space. I don’t think spending money on a study is a smart idea,” he said.

Bartelt said there is little room at either end of the bridge for the ramp space required for a high-rise bridge.

“They would have to have the ramp onto the Island end about 200 feet out in the water,” he said.

The DOT should concentrate on a low-rise drawbridge, according to Bartelt.

Holmes Beach Mayor Rich Bohnenberger concurred: The study would be a waste of money. Although, he said, the DOT has to follow its own procedures and produce a study before any replacement begins.

Bohnenberger remembered the 1990s, when the DOT didn’t follow its own rules and tried to get a high-rise replacement for the Manatee Bridge built without a proper study.

“Everyone’s treading on water now. I’m sure a study has to be done, but I think it’s pretty much pre-determined that it would have to be a drawbridge that’s a maximum of 45 feet high, if that,” Bohnenberger said.

“There is no way there’s enough land on either side that it could ever be a fixed-span, high-rise bridge,” he added. Bohnenberger said the current height of about 25 feet is sufficient.

While the study is apparently necessary, said Bohnenberger, it’s still “a lot of money to spend” on a question that every Islander can answer.

Anna Maria Mayor Mike Selby agreed with his colleagues that the study is a “waste of taxpayer money.” He noted Anna Maria residents would be minimally impacted if the bridge were renovated, but not closed during repairs.

During the DOT’s 1995 Cortez Bridge renovation project, the bridge was scheduled a 30-day closure in October. Construction delays, however, pushed the opening to the first week in December, much to the consternation of many Islanders, Island business owners and visitors.

During the DOT’s 2008 renovation project for the Anna Maria Island Bridge, the span was closed for nearly six weeks, and all traffic was diverted to the Cortez and Longboat Pass bridges.

That closure, from Sept. 28, 2008, to Nov. 7, 2008, prompted a decline in Island tourism and retail sales and a number of small businesses closed.

Selby said he would not want to see the Cortez Bridge closed for any reason and a fixed-span, high-rise bridge is “out of the question.”

Bohnenberger observed that any closure of the Cortez Bridge for an extended period would put “pressure” on the AMI Bridge to accommodate nearly all the traffic to and from the Island.

DOT officials in Bartow are proceeding with the PD&E study as a requirement for funding a replacement bridge.

“We need the study to tell us what’s the best replacement for the bridge,” DOT spokesperson Lauren Hatchell said. She added that public hearings would be held before the DOT submits a recommendation to the U.S. Coast Guard.

The present Cortez Bridge was built in 1956 and has been renovated on several occasions. DOT officials say the bridge was built with a life span of 50 years.

The 1995 project was intended to keep the bridge operating for another 15-20 years, DOT officials then said. Other renovations and repairs to the Cortez Bridge have taken place periodically since 1995.

The level of service for the Cortez Bridge is at 5, the minimum service level for any Florida bridge to remain operational. Some emergency repairs might keep the bridge open if the service level drops to 4 or below, the DOT said, but DOT engineers say a new bridge is needed.

Officials estimated it would take several years before any Cortez Bridge replacement could be authorized and funded.

Following a similar study and public hearings on the AMI Bridge in 2009, the DOT recommended a two-lane, 65-foot-high, fixed-span replacement that would be begin about 20 feet south of the present bridge’s eastern approach. That would allow vehicular and pedestrian traffic on the bridge while the new structure is under construction.

DOT officials in 2008 estimated it would take 10-15 years before funding would be available and permits and construction could begin for a new AMI Bridge.

A DOT survey conducted in late 2008 found 82 percent of Islanders favored a fixed-span, high-rise bridge as a replacement for the AMI Bridge, but were opposed to any widening of the bridge to four lanes.

The DOT agreed.

Billie Martini of the Save Anna Maria Inc., a grassroots organization, said her group is opposed to both the planned AMI Bridge and any replacement for the Cortez Bridge.

However, said Martini, the group’s opposition is likely to have little influence on the DOT plans.

“All we can do is protest when they have their meetings,” she said.

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