By Tom Vaught
sun staff writer
HOLMES BEACH – Urged on by local restaurant owner Ed Chiles, Anna Maria Island’s three mayors met last week at the AMI Chamber to map out a plan of attack against a bridge project that they feel will spell economic disaster for the Island.
They agreed to invite residents, business owners and others air their feelings at a public forum on Monday, Oct. 29, starting at 5 p.m. at St. Bernard Catholic Church, 248 S. Harbor Drive, Holmes Beach.
They also asked that anyone who wants to write a letter on the subject bring it to the meeting so that it can be forwarded to the appropriate officials. They could also e-mail or mail letters to their local city halls, the mayors said.
The mayors were reacting to the news that the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) wants to shut down the Anna Maria Island Bridge on Manatee Avenue for as long as 75 days straight while it performs a $9.2 million rehabilitation project. FDOT officials told county commissioners that almost two weeks ago and the reaction was instantaneous and unanimous, closing the bridge for that long a time would spell doom for some Island businesses that are already reeling from high taxes and insurance premiums.
While meeting with the mayors earlier, the FDOT officials said that they could not perform the work and leave one lane open at a time because of structural concerns. Since the work also includes replacing the moveable bascule that serves as the draw in the bridge, it would be removed during a certain portion of the project.
Chiles talked about a strategy for at least delaying the project’s start while they try to plan around the bridge closing.
"The decider is (Florida Governor) Charlie Crist," Chiles said, referring to the fact that it is a state project. "(State Senator) Mike Bennett and (Representative) Bill Galvano can influence things, but the governor gives the orders."
When county commissioners asked FDOT officials about delaying this project, they were told that the bridge planning was a "done deal." Chiles said he couldn’t believe they used that phrase, which was the same one FDOT used 14 years ago when they unsuccessfully tried to replace the drawbridge with a 65-foot-high, fixed-span structure.
"Everybody needs to be in support of what we do," he told the mayors. "We need to say to them, ‘Hey, wait a minute, let’s have an informed process.’"
Chiles said he would not be opposed to re-addressing the possibility of replacing the 50-year-old drawbridge with a taller drawbridge that has a third lane for safety, which was one of the possibilities FDOT considered after all the opposition to its plan 14 years ago. Chiles said they might pose that possibility to FDOT again.
"We could ask them to wait until we put it on a referendum," he said. "There’s going to be a whole lot of people here up in arms over this."
Holmes Beach Mayor Rich Bohnenberger said there was a lot of opposition to the tall bridge that replaced the drawbridge from Sarasota to St. Armands, but after it was finished, it didn’t look bad.
Chiles said they might see if FDOT could rebid the job to a contractor who would not need to close if for so long a time.
Chamber President Mary Ann Brockman said she had gotten inquiries from the management of larger stores on the Island like Walgreen’s and Publix about the closure, and she said she would try to get officials from those companies to come to the meeting.
"Get as many as you can," Chiles said. "We need to build a database of businesses that are opposed."
Meanwhile, Florida State Representative Bill Galvano said he expects to be in town and attend the meeting next Monday. He said he read of the bridge project while he was in town last week and he wants to help.
“I truly believe the impact from closing that bridge for 75 days would be tremendous,” he said. “I am willing to assist our local government officials in any way I can.”
Galvano said that he feels FDOT needs to consider the consequences of the closure.
“They are a state agency and it is their job to be responsive to the people,” he said.