The Florida Department of Transportation has Joe McClash’s answer.
The DOT had rejected the former Manatee County commissioner’s petition challenging the agency’s plans for a Cortez megabridge, but McClash filed an amended petition Nov. 22.
The state transportation agency had ruled Nov. 13 that the matter is under federal jurisdiction, not state.
Not so, McClash contends.
“The order to dismiss the petition is without cause and creates an absurd interpretation … for challenging actions of a state agency,” McClash wrote in the amended petition.
“Respondent, FDOT cite the memorandum of understanding, however that specifically provides for the FDOT to take action on behalf of the Federal Highway Administration,” the petition states.
The DOT announced Oct. 10 it had approved a yearslong project development and environment study and was going ahead with design work to replace the Cortez drawbridge with a 65-foot-clearance fixed span.
McClash’s request about two weeks later for a formal administrative hearing contained 25 instances in which he says the DOT acted wrongly.
The transportation agency made a brief statement when McClash filed his initial petition.
“The department is highly confident that we followed all applicable state and federal guidelines related to this PD&E study; however, since this is now a legal matter, we cannot provide comment,” DOT spokesman Brian R. Rick wrote in an Oct. 24 email to The Islander.
McClash, who served on the county commission 1990-2012, is joined in his quest for the administrative hearing by three organizations and three Cortez residents, including another former county commissioner.
One of those residents had some blunt words for the DOT.
“The rejection is symptomatic of their attitude,” Cortez resident Joe Kane said in a Nov. 20 phone interview. “They’re arrogant.”
The DOT appears to be trying to shore up support in Cortez for the megabridge, which some residents strongly oppose.
District 1 Secretary LK Nandam, based in Bartow, held a private meeting Nov. 15 with Cortez businessman John Banyas at his Swordfish Grill and Tiki Bar. An Islander reporter was told he could not attend.
Nandam declined to comment on the meeting when asked in person Nov. 18, but Banyas said in a Nov. 20 phone interview the bridge was discussed.
“I could go either way, but I think the taller bridge makes sense,” he said.
Cortez businesswoman Karen Bell, a leader in the local seafood industry and operator of the A.P. Bell Fish Co., has publicly expressed her support for a high bridge.
In addition to the megabridge, the DOT also considered making repairs to the 62-year-old drawbridge or replacing it with a 35-foot-clearance drawbridge.
The current drawbridge, with a center clearance of about 17 feet, had major repairs done in 1996, 2010 and 2015 and the DOT says it has outlived its lifespan.
Design work is expected to take at least four years to complete. About $8 million has been earmarked for right-of-way acquisition, but construction funding has not been allocated.
Opponents of the high bridge say it would change the character of the fishing village, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995. Many residents have been fighting the megabridge since the DOT revealed a plan for it in 1989.
McClash and many others don’t oppose replacing the bridge, they just don’t want a megabridge.
“It will have a major impact to the village of Cortez,” McClash told The Islander Oct. 25. “It will not be able to survive placing this megastructure within the village.”
Kane, one of the petitioners, has lived in Cortez for more than two decades.
“The more I researched the proposal, the more monstrous it became,” Kane told The Islander Oct. 25. “It’s a death sentence for Cortez, as well as Bradenton Beach.”
The bridge, located on Cortez Road, crosses the Intracoastal Waterway from Cortez and the mainland to Anna Maria Island, where it empties onto Gulf Drive in Bradenton Beach.
Linda Molto, another petitioner, has lived in Cortez 34 years.
“It’s the wrong bridge for the wrong place,” she said in an Oct. 24 interview with The Islander.
The Anna Maria Island Bridge on Manatee Avenue, a second drawbridge connecting the island to the mainland built the same year, also is slated to be replaced by a 65-foot-clearance fixed span. Its design schedule is further along than the Cortez Bridge, having been approved first by the DOT.
Jane von Hahmann, a 43-year Cortez resident who served on the county commission 2001-08, also is a petitioner in McClash’s legal challenge.
Others are the environmental group ManaSota-88 and two other nonprofits, the Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage and Cortez Village Historical Society.
McClash said he reached out to Bradenton Beach Mayor John Chappie to join the initial petition but was unable to contact him.
“Our goal is to follow back with the city of Bradenton Beach,” he told The Islander Nov. 22. “There’s nothing to keep Bradenton Beach from joining the petition.”
Chappie said Nov. 22 he intends to call McClash but must first consult with the city commissioners.
“That’s something I would have to bring up before the city commission,” he said, adding he would bring it up at the next commission meeting.
The three Anna Maria Island cities and the Island Transportation Planning Organization, made up of the mayors from the three cities, have voted to oppose the DOT’s plans for the 65-foot bridge.
The Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization is not involved in the challenge, which executive director David Hutchinson called “a procedural matter.”
“The MPO has no support for any particular design, but we’ve consistently supported expeditious replacement of the bridge,” Hutchinson said Oct. 25.
It’s a clear-cut choice for Cortez residents, McClash said.
“We have a real simple issue in front of us,” he said. “You’re either going to get a 65-foot bridge shoved down your throat or the reality is that there’s an option for a 35-foot bridge.”