Science may prevail for Cortez Bridge opponents

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A view from Cortez looking west across the Intracoastal Waterway into Bradenton Beach from the south side of Cortez Bridge.

The Florida Department of Transportation faces at least four significant challenges before the old Cortez bascule bridge can be removed to make way for a new span despite public opposition.

Funding must be earmarked and dedicated to build the new bridge, which will cost roughly $72 million and last at least 75 years, according to the DOT.

The plan also must qualify under the National Environmental Policy Act, which was one of the first environmental laws passed in the United States in 1970.

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

And the DOT will have to answer to local residents and officials who claim the state is overlooking better alternatives and public opposition, while doing irreparable harm in choosing the big bridge.

“Oh, yes. Oh, there’s no question the DOT is ignoring us,” said Linda Molto, a Florida Institute of Saltwater Heritage board member.

Molto said FISH and a host of megabridge opponents are working on stopping the proposal from being implemented — as has been done before.

“We’re going at it again,” Molto said.

The DOT list of critics now includes ManaSota-88, the Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage, Cortez Village Historical Society and city officials in Anna Maria, Bradenton Beach and Holmes Beach.

Critics say leverage could be provided by NEPA, which requires the DOT to perform environmental impact statements and assessments and is enforced by the President’s Council on Environmental Quality.

The NEPA environmental review could offer valuable ammunition in the debate, according to Holmes Beach resident Barbara Hines, a planning commission member and ManaSota-88 vice chair.

Hines said she supported the Anna Maria megabridge on Manatee Avenue, but this is different.

“That was a man-made causeway,” Hines said. “There was little, if any, disruption to the environment. But this is different. This is going to destroy the environment, including seagrass and a historic village.”

Seagrass is a major environmental issue for the Cortez Bridge because past attempts to restore seagrass elsewhere have been unsuccessful, Hines said.

Can the new bridge meet NEPA standards?

Not even the DOT knows.

The DOT is evaluating the bridge proposal for NEPA compliance, according to spokesman Zachary Burch.

“The process also takes environmental, traffic, social and environmental justice factors into consideration. These criteria must be satisfied before being approved through the NEPA process,” Burch wrote in a May 18 email to The Islander.

Another key DOT study will be released in full in July, Burch said. The DOT project development and environment study required by state and federal regulations will help determine if the big bridge goes forward, according to Burch.

The DOT released a two-page excerpt of the PD&E study April 23, which announced a 65-foot-clearance fixed-span as the preferred option over repairing the existing drawbridge.

ManaSota-88 needs the complete PD&E study to determine whether the DOT overstepped in choosing to design a high-rise, fixed-span rather than repairing the existing drawbridge, according to Hines.

Burch said studies so far support the DOT decision.

“The PD&E study has shown no significant impacts anticipated as a result of the proposed replacement of the Cortez Bridge,” Burch wrote in his email.

The study also determined no archaeological or historic resources will be affected. Same goes for noise — to be re-evaluated during the design phase — Intracoastal Waterway navigation and wind or flooding. And, according to the studies, a bigger bridge will have a positive impact on hurricane evacuation and stormwater treatment.

The DOT claims don’t compute, according to the CVHS, which notes nearly 90 village buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and a large bridge would destroy a key village characteristic by its sheer size.

The CVHS suggested a new bridge linking the north end of Longboat Key with the mainland would be a better alternative.

Residents and officials also complain the bridge decision was made despite strong public opposition running 3-to-1 in favor of the low bridge.

“They have their mind made up before they go in and nothing changes it,” Molto said.

Burch points out the DOT made presentations to citizen and governmental groups on more than 25 occasions.

“Part of the process includes extensive public involvement,” Burch said. “The DOT solicits community input and does an in-depth evaluation of potential community impacts.”

The PD&E 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, linking Bradenton Beach to 123rd Street West in Cortez.

DOT inspections between 2008 and 2012 found the bascule bridge structurally and functionally obsolete but repairable.

Design on the new bridge is to begin this year.

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