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Date of Issue: April 06, 2006

Bridge vs. sailors: Call it a draw

U.S. Coast Guard Bridge Management Specialist Michael Lieberum listens to public comment March 29 on the proposed change to the opening times for the Cortez and Anna Maria drawbridges.

The U.S. Coast Guard meeting March 29 in Holmes Beach to hear public comment on a proposal to change the daily on-demand opening times of the Anna Maria and Cortez bridges drew the expected pros and cons on both sides.

Boaters, primarily sailors who use the Intracoastal Waterway, lined up against the proposal, citing safety issues with holding their sailboats in often tricky currents while waiting an additional 10 minutes as proposed for a drawbridge to open.

Island motorists, however, countered that the time changes - from every 20 minutes on demand to every 30 minutes - would alleviate much of the traffic congestion, particularly in Bradenton Beach, when the Cortez Bridge is raised every 20 minutes when needed.

U.S. Coast Guard Bridge Management Specialist Michael Lieberum said the meeting was only to take public input before making a final recommendation, expected in about 30 days.

After extensive lobbying by the three Island cities and Longboat Key, the USCG agreed last summer to a proposal from the Coalition of Barrier Island Elected Officials that the bridge opening times be changed to every half-hour on demand when a sailboat appears instead of the current 20-minute schedule.

The proposal also includes a "curfew" time for no bridge openings between 7:35 a.m. and 8:29 a.m. daily and 4:35 to 5:29 p.m. daily.

"We are looking for constructive criticism," said Lieberum. "The proposal is for seven days a week, but that may not be the final answer." Curfew hours may mean nothing on weekends.

He got plenty of input, both for and against the initiative.

Holmes Beach resident and sailor Tony Webb said the extra 10-minute wait "means nothing" to a boater.

He said he's been in his sailboat waiting for the drawbridge to go up and seen up to 100 cars, often more, waiting on a sailboat with just two people on board.

Those people have somewhere to go. When you're sailing, you don't have too many cares, he noted.

If a sailor is in such a big hurry that waiting another 10 minutes for the bridge to go up is an inconvenience, they shouldn't be out in a sailboat, he maintained.

"Ten minutes to a boater is nothing," he concluded.

Not quite, said Holmes Beach resident Bob Jorgensen, who is also a sailor.

"When the weather is bad, you have to use the Intracoastal and you can't wait too long for the bridge," he said.

Agreed, said Capt. Matt Fisher. "There's a safety issue involved." Sailboats can't "just sit idle while waiting for the bridge to open. They have to keep moving and the currents around the two bridges, particularly the Cortez Bridge in rough weather, create a problem for the sailor."

Opponents of the proposed bridge opening times found a willing ally in Connie Collings, the supervisor of the bridge tenders for the Anna Maria, Cortez and Longboat Pass bridges.

She said changing the opening times will sometimes create a backup of 10 or 11 sailboats waiting to go through the bridge on one opening. "This will be very unsafe," she claimed.

Collings also said the proposed curfew hours are not needed. Her log books for opening times show only 12 openings for the three bridges in February between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. and two of those were on a weekend.

Sailor Joe Jackson suggested a "task force" of both sides of the issue be created to come up with an acceptable solution.

And what's the big deal? asked Holmes Beach resident Joseph Callahan. The problem is only 60 days a year during February and March.

Maybe, said Longboat Key Town Commissioner Jeremy Whatmough, but his drive to Holmes Beach that day was a perfect example of the problem.

He said it took him an hour to traverse the seven miles from his Longboat Key home to Holmes Beach because the Cortez Bridge went up, backing up traffic on already congested Gulf Drive and over the Longboat Pass Bridge.

Whatmough said the problem is not only the bridge opening times, it's all the growth in eastern Manatee and Sarasota counties.

During the season, everyone wants to come to the barrier islands. Add the winter visitors to the increased number of residents heading to the islands, combined with the bridge-opening times, and you have a traffic mess.

Changing the bridge opening times won't "solve all the problem, but will be a step forward," he said.

Well, you can't have it both ways, said Jorgensen. High-rise bridges are the norm along Florida's Intracoastal Waterway, everywhere except Anna Maria, he said.

Absolutely, said Donald Leeb of Cortez.

The problem is there are no high-rise bridges to the Island, thanks to political pressure from Islanders when the Florida Department of Transportation proposed such a measure 10 years ago, he said.

The Island cities and Longboat Key are "asking for time changes on the bridges, but fought against high-rise bridges. You can't have it both ways. The biggest problem is the Cortez-Gulf Drive traffic light," Leeb concluded.

Holmes Beach resident Joan Perry said the problem is not the bridges, it's that too many cars are being driven on roads not designed to handle all that traffic.

Sue Davidson of the Manatee Sailing Association said the 1,000-plus members of her organization are opposed to the changes and presented data from the Florida Department of Transportation that said the proposed bridge opening times would only save motorists an average of two minutes per day.

The bridge opening times are not inconveniencing the driving public, it's the traffic, she maintained.

The ultimate question, said boater Richard Pagano, is "Who is to be inconvenienced the most?" The boater who is struggling to maintain his or her position in the water under difficult conditions, or the motorists who can sit safely on the bridge while waiting for traffic to clear?

Bradenton Beach Mayor John Chappie and Holmes Beach Mayor Carol Whitmore both said their respective city commissions are in favor of the proposal.

Longboat Key Commissioner George Spoll had planned to speak at the meeting, but was delayed nearly 90 minutes due to the traffic backup from Cortez Road south on Gulf Drive and across the Longboat Pass Bridge. He arrived just as the meeting ended.

Lieberum said that he and his staff would listen to the comments and give a recommendation on any possible changes to the proposal in about 30 days. He did not rule out just having the bridge opening time change during the winter season.

"We'll consider every suggestion," he said.

Whatmough said whatever the Coast Guard's final decision is, "I hope it results in the greatest good for the greatest number of people."

Until Lieberum returns with a final decision, call the meeting a draw.