FDOT chooses tall bridge for Cortez

New Cortez bridge
The middle span of the new Cortez Bridge may look something like this. - FDOT | Submitted

BRADENTON BEACH – The other shoe has dropped.

After more than 25 years of local resistance to replacing the two drawbridges from the mainland to Anna Maria Island with tall, fixed spans, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) announced it would build a tall replacement for the Cortez Bridge.

FDOT officials made the announcement at Monday’s Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization, a government group that regulates road and bridge construction projects in the two-county area.

The decision caps a long struggle for many residents of Anna Maria Island, who said tall bridges would be out of style on an Island that restricts building heights and limits fast food chain restaurants and retailers.

FDOT officials had narrowed the choices for a new bridge to two: A 35-foot-tall drawbridge with an estimated cost of $95.76 million, or a 65-foot, fixed-span bridge with a price tag of $72.1 million. A third option of repairing the existing drawbridge and extending the life of the structure another 10 to 15 years was deemed not feasible by FDOT.

Opinions have varied over the years on which option was the best. In surveys conducted by FDOT, a surprising number of respondents favored the tall bridge. Improved traffic flow and fewer delays from drawbridge openings were reasons cited.

Opponents, however, maintained that not only would the tall bridge be out of place, but it also would pose a danger during hurricane evacuations because it would have to be closed in high winds. Some in Cortez also feared that access to their homes and businesses would be restricted by the mega-bridge.

Bradenton Beach Mayor John Chappie said Monday he was disappointed in FDOT’s decision, but he understands the state wants to have as few traffic interruptions as possible. He said they have a duty to make sure the new bridge doesn’t impact the entryway to the city, the bike path that goes under the current bridge and Bridgeport condominiums north of the current bridge landing.

“The new bridge would land just north of the current bridge and that would definitely impact Bridgeport condominiums,” he said. “We need to make sure it would not impact Bradenton Beach negatively.”

Chappie said the tall bridge would be out of style with the city.

“We used to say we were unique because the trees were taller than the buildings but that might not be true anymore with that bridge,” he said.

Chappie said the plans call for an aesthetics committee, like the Anna Maria Island Bridge replacement project.

“We’re going to have to make sure we’re well represented and make sure the decisions they make are for the betterment of Bradenton Beach and the Island,” he said.

Manatee County Commissioner Carol Whitmore said she also did not like the decision. She pointed out there was a deal made 25 years ago between FDOT and Island elected officials to replace the Anna Maria Island Bridge with a tall, fixed span if they would leave the Cortez bridge as a medium-height drawbridge that would open to boating less than the current bridge because more boats would fit under it.

Longtime Cortez resident Dr. Mary Fulford Green said the new bridge would be a fiasco.

“It will close five roads and during storm season, it would have to be closed to traffic sooner in high winds,” she said. “I want to know how much federal funding would go into the project because in 1995, they put a rule in the Federal Register that says you cannot use federal funds to negatively impact historic areas, and Cortez is a historic area.”

Former Manatee County Commissioner Jane von Hahmann, a Cortez resident, said she was disappointed in the FDOT decision, but not surprised.

“I hoped and prayed they would decide in favor of Cortez, but it didn’t happen,” she said. “It seems more and more decisions are being made in favor of people who don’t live here.”

Florida Department of Transportation information specialist Zachery Burch said if all the relevant government agencies support it, they would start working on the details to come up with a final plan. He said the tall bridge would require extra roads to make some businesses accessible and there would be some benefits.

“It would create more parking and there would be roads on both ends running beneath the bridge connecting the north to the south,” he said. “We might have golf cart lanes or canoe/kayak launching areas and fish cleaning stations.”

He confirmed there would be an aesthetics committee formed in the future with local representatives to decide the decorative details and landscaping.

The tall bridge recommendation now will go to FDOT in Tallahassee for final approval. If it gets the green light, design of the bridge could begin later this year. The project currently is not funded.