The years may have slowed down their bodies or their memories, but not their spirits.
Katie Pierola and Linda Molto began battling the Florida Department of Transportation 30 years ago when the agency announced plans to build a 65-foot-clearance fixed-span to replace the Cortez Bridge.
Pierola and Molto prevailed then, but the DOT has returned with plans to build a megabridge between Bradenton Beach and the historic fishing village of Cortez
Pierola and Molto say they’ve returned too.
“I would never not be involved,” Molto, 74, told The Islander in an Aug. 29 interview.
Pierola, 86, may have knee surgery in November and uses a walker to get around.
“I can’t jump in the car,” she said in an interview Aug. 29. “I can’t go to meetings like I used to. But I still get involved.”
Neither woman is surprised by the DOT’s efforts.
“We had a feeling it would come back,” Molto said. “We know the DOT. We just know them. Because we dealt with them before, we know who they are.”
Said Pierola, “They haven’t given up. That’s bad because of all the work we did to save that bridge.”
When the DOT announced its plans in 1989, Molto, who lives in Cortez, joined forces with Pierola, who was mayor of Bradenton Beach from 1989-92.
Public outcry led the DOT to abandon plans for the Cortez Bridge in the early1990s.
But the agency then announced plans to replace the Anna Maria Island Bridge with a 65-foot-clearance fixed span, same as it wanted for Cortez.
Pierola and more than 70 other activists answered by forming Save Anna Maria in 1993.
SAM won a lawsuit against the DOT in 1997 that halted plans for the bridge over concerns for seagrass beds and shallow waters.
That quieted the waters for more than a decade.
The DOT came back with a study completed in 2010 that determined the Anna Maria Island Bridge would have no significant impact on natural resources and wildlife, among other factors. The Federal Highway Administration approved the study in 2016.
SAM disbanded in October 2017.
The prevailing notion among local officials and bridge opponents was that the DOT would get a high span for the Anna Maria Island Bridge, and leave the Cortez structure alone.
It was not to be.
The DOT began a study in 2013 on options for replacing the Cortez Bridge and announced in April 2018 that it would build a 65-foot bridge.
Molto, who admits to a failing memory, says the anti-bridge brigade is now just getting started. Slowly.
They have had one meeting, she said, but don’t really know what’s next.
The passage of time has weakened the bonds.
“We knew everybody back then,” she said. “Now, we don’t. We had a history with the island, and they had a history with us. It’s not gone, but it’s not what it was.
“When the old-timers died, a lot of the young ones decided they did not want to live here any more or they didn’t want to fish and went elsewhere.”
Opponents of the high span have maintained for years it would permanently damage the character of Cortez, which was designated a U.S. historic district in 1995 — largely due to the grass-root efforts of Linda Molto and Mary Fulford Green.
“What’s it going to do to the fishing village?” Pierola asked.
County Commissioner Carol Whitmore, who represents the residents countywide, is the only member of the seven-member board who opposes the high bridge. She is making another push to see it replaced by a 45-foot-clearance drawbridge.
Molto says she wishes the rest of the commission would oppose the high bridge.
“I don’t understand why the county would want to do something like that to Cortez,” Molto said.
Holmes Beach resident Nancy Deal served in a leadership post with SAM after joining the group in 2001. She strongly criticizes the DOT, which has its regional headquarters in Polk County.
“A bureaucrat is making a decision that affects people’s lives,” she told The Islander in an Aug. 28 telephone interview. “Someone sitting in Bartow.”
Whitmore says the DOT may be tone deaf to this issue.
“I think they don’t understand the long heritage of the Cortez fishing village and its role in the state of Florida,” she said in a telephone interview Aug. 30. “With all due respect, they should consider it. Once the fishing village’s character is gone, it will never come back.”
DOT District 1 secretary LK Nandam said in a statement emailed to The Islander on Aug. 22 that all due care is being taken to preserve the village.
“We go through an extensive project development process, which follows both federal and state requirements, to seek the best solution for the entire community,” Nandam wrote.
“The department will continue its engagement with the communities, particularly, Cortez village and Bradenton Beach, as we prepare the design for the bridge,” he wrote later in his statement.
County Commission Chair Stephen Jonsson, whose district includes Anna Maria Island and Cortez, said in an Aug. 23 interview with The Islander that he feels comfortable that the DOT will preserve the character of the village.
“In my conversations with the DOT,” he said, “that’s something they’re very sensitive to.”
Nandam and megabridge opponents agree that repair cost is a major factor.
The high span “would not require the extensive maintenance that traditional, lower-profile bridges have,” Nandam told The Islander.
“The DOT does not like bascule bridges because of the maintenance costs,” Deal said. “In our case, they don’t consider what it does to the community.”
The Cortez Bridge had major rehab projects in 1996, 2010 and 2015. The Anna Maria Island Bridge has had six structural repairs since 1978.
Both drawbridges have outlived their 50-year life spans, the DOT says. New bridges have 75-year life spans, according to the DOT.
Design work on the Anna Maria Island Bridge is about 60 percent complete, but won’t be finished until fiscal 2022-23, DOT spokesman Brian R. Rick told The Islander in August.
Construction is not funded.
A $6.4 million contract has been awarded for bridge design, but work has not started, Rick said.
The DOT is waiting on the project development and environment study release, expected by the end of this year, the DOT spokesman said.
The study will determine the environmental, economic, social, cultural and physical impacts of the new bridge.
But Pierola and Molto are not waiting. They hear, in the words of 17th century English poet and politician Andrew Marvell, “time’s winged chariot hurrying near.”
“We’re not going to let them off easy,” Molto said.
Pierola makes no excuses for her feistiness.
“I’m just the normal person on politics,” she said. “I am what I am. That’s it.”