Environmental group pushes for Cortez Bridge details

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The Cortez Bridge, bottom right, looking east in January toward the village of Cortez, right, the waterfront extending from the bridge and the mainland via Cortez Road. Islander File Photo: Jack Elka
A plaque announces the dedication by the Florida Legislature in 1965 of the Cortez Bridge — eight years after it opened — at the foot of the bridge in Cortez. Critics are saying the Florida Department of Transportation plans for a fixed-span to replace the drawbridge are flawed. Islander Photo: Terry O’Connor

A Cortez Bridge study by the Florida Department of Transportation was a sham, according to ManaSota-88, a nonprofit devoted to public health and environmental issues.

“This is wrong on every level,” said Holmes Beach resident Barbara Hines, ManaSota-88 vice chair and a member of Holmes Beach Planning Commission.

“It appears they selected the most environmentally damaging and least popular alternative,” said ManaSota-88 chairman Glenn Compton.

The DOT announced results April 23 of its Cortez Bridge project development and environmental study, which formalized its preference for a 65-foot-clearance, fixed-span linking Cortez to Bradenton Beach.

“The repair alternative has the least impact on threatened and endangered species and environmental resources,” Hines said. “Why is this not the preferred DOT alternative? We can’t keep destroying the environment. This is just wrong.”

Zachary Burch, DOT spokesman, did not provide a copy of the study, saying it would be released in July. The news release announcing the study results was two pages long.

“We have looked at this issue since the beginning,” said Compton. “Not having that study to review, we have a lot of questions.”

ManaSota-88 joins the Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage, Cortez Village Historical Society and city officials in Anna Maria, Bradenton Beach and Holmes Beach in questioning the DOT study and its choice of the fixed-span replacement bridge.

The Cortez Village Historical Society issued a statement May 17 noting nearly 90 buildings in the village are certified historic structures by the National Register of Historic Places.

“Each one of these and the rest of the village structures will be affected by the building of the proposed 65-foot-tall fixed bridge,” according to the CVHS statement. “How can the village remain historical with a huge bridge looming over it?

The CVHS noted villagers have repeatedly protested building a high-fixed bridge. The statement calls for the DOT to consider a better alternative, building a new bridge linking the north end of Longboat Key with the mainland.

“This would relieve some of the traffic from Cortez and allow the historic village to remain without the changes a 65-foot bridge would entail,” according to the CVHS statement.

Before the project can move forward, many questions about the DOT decision and the study must be addressed, according to ManaSota-88.

“The study was pretextural,” Hines said. “They had no intention of doing the (bridge repair). You can’t say let’s pretend.”

Burch said the DOT study assessed bridge and road alignment options over about a mile of Cortez Road/State Road 684. The new bridge would cross the Intracoastal Waterway from Gulf Drive in Bradenton Beach to 123rd Street West in Cortez, replacing the 17.5-foot clearance drawbridge.

ManaSota-88 needs the complete study to determine whether the DOT abused its discretion in choosing to design a high-rise, fixed-span rather than repairing the existing bascule bridge, according to Compton and Hines.

The DOT provided roughly a dozen formal opportunities for the public to participate in the planning process during the past five years. But was public comment and preference considered in choosing a bridge alternative?

Linda Molto, FISH board member, said it was not.

“They think we are all idiots,” Molto said.

DOT drawbridge inspections between 2008 and 2012 found it functionally obsolete and repairable.

Design on the new bridge is scheduled to begin this year. The right-of-way phase is funded beginning in 2020.

A new bridge also requires final approval from the DOT Office of Environmental Management in Tallahassee and funding for construction.

“Funding will always be the ultimate decision on what happens,” Compton said. “There’s still opportunity to express opinion on what type of bridge should be there.”

Rehabilitation of the existing bridge is the least environmentally damaging option and least disruptive to residents of Cortez and Bradenton Beach, according to Compton.

ManaSota-88 also wants the DOT to answer the following questions:
• Why wasn’t a citizen’s advisory committee convened to help the DOT study proposed alternatives?
• Did the DOT study measure potential effects on neighborhoods, communities, archaeological and historical resources, noise pollution, navigation, hurricane evacuation, wind and flooding?
• Were comprehensive plans in Anna Maria, Bradenton, Bradenton Beach, Holmes Beach and Manatee County analyzed to determine whether the new span would affect land use or community travel patterns?
• Has a scientific study been done on potential environmental effects?
• Will the increased impervious surface on the new bridge result in more contaminants from stormwater runoff?
• Will a new bridge generate more traffic?
• Did the study assess environmental and social impacts?
• Are environmental justice issues being considered regarding access to Cortez?

The DOT has responsibilities under the National Environmental Policy Act for environmental review. Does the new bridge meet NEPA standards?

“You have to think of the people,” Hines said. “The folks in Cortez have fought very hard for a very long time to maintain their way of life and this would destroy that.”

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