DOT presentation draws out bridge war vets

The state study is not begun and no recommendations have been made, but veterans of past skirmishes over the future of the Cortez Bridge vowed last week to oppose any high-rise span at the location.

“A new bridge would wipe out the historic village” of Cortez, longtime high-rise bridge opponent Jim Kissick said April 12, during a Manatee County Commission meeting in Bradenton. The commissioners had just received a briefing from Florida Department of Transportation officials on two Cortez Bridge projects — a rehabilitation planned in fiscal 2013-14 and a project development and environment study planned in fiscal 2012-13.

No one spoke at the meeting against the planned rehabilitation of the 55-year-old steel bascule. The work would cost about $4.4 million and involve repairs to the bridge beam supports, concrete deck, seawall, support pilings, machinery, expansion joints, traffic gates and bridgetender house.

“It’s the only state-owned deficient bridge in Manatee County,” DOT maintenance engineer Jim Jacobsen told commissioners and their audience.

The photographs he displayed during the presentation showed corrosion, rust and cracked concrete on the structure.

“It’s mostly salt damage,” Jacobsen said, adding that the largest expense in the rehab project would be the replacement of steel bearings.

The planned rehabilitation would extend the life of the bridge 10-15 years, but the DOT also is preparing for a study — a project development and environment study — to determine how to get 75 years out of a structure spanning the Intracoastal Waterway between the village of Cortez and the city of Bradenton Beach.

The study would cost about $1.5 million and take two to three years to complete, according to DOT project development engineer Chris Piazza.

The DOT completed a PD&E study on the Cortez Bridge in 1989 that recommended building a twin two-lane, high-level, fixed-span bridge north of the existing drawbridge.

That study, Piazza emphasized last week, is outdated for numerous reasons. For example, with the time that’s passed, there might be more historic structures in the vicinity or new endangered species and habitat issues to consider.

Piazza promised multiple workshops and hearings on the issue as the DOT conducts the study and emphasized that the DOT will “look at all options.”

But to some at last week’s meeting, a high bridge on Cortez Road should be out of the question.

Commissioners John Chappie and Carol Whitmore, both Island residents and former Island city mayors, said they have long opposed a high bridge at the location.

“I know you are going to do your study,” Chappie said, then added, “It seems like a waste of money.”

Chappie continued, saying he doesn’t need a study to know that “a high bridge would destroy two communities.”

Kissick, a former commissioner, and former Bradenton Beach Mayor Katie Pierola also spoke against a high bridge and urged consideration of Kissick’s proposal to extend 53rd Avenue and build a bridge from Bradenton to the south end of Coquina Beach.

Pierola said she prepared a 600-page document “on why you cannot replace this bridge” and how a replacement would “change the ambiance of the whole area.”

Kissick, who has a long history on the Island, said he remembers crossing to Anna Maria Island via a wooden bridge from Cortez.

And, he said, “I’ve been in this bridge war since 1989.… Everything has been researched from the sky and the water by me, in my airplane and in my boat. A new bridge would wipe out the historic village.”

Kissick pushed the 53rd Avenue extension bridge, which he said would alleviate the congestion that comes with motorists using the Cortez Bridge to reach Longboat Key.

DOT District 1 Secretary Stan Cann said that the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization would have to take up the 53rd Avenue extension before the state considers the project.

“We couldn’t look at it all unless it was part of the long-term transportation plan for the MPO,” he said. “That hasn’t happened.”

After the meeting, MPO executive director Mike Howe said there is time for someone to ask the MPO to consider the 53rd Avenue extension bridge. The MPO is the area’s regional transportation planning agency and consists of staff, several committees and a recommending board.

Bradenton Beach Mayor Bob Bartelt, who was on his way out of the county building, said he was “fired up” and planned to take a closer look at the 53rd Avenue extension, as well as the MPO planning process.

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