SUN PHOTO/MAGGIE FIELD
HOLMES BEACH – Quinn Construction, Inc., opened the Anna Maria Island Bridge to traffic on Thursday almost three hours before schedule, to the relief of many, especially to those stuck in a gigantic traffic jam at the time.
The reason for the traffic jam is not clear, but authorities agree that it was the largest problem the Island experienced since the bridge was closed Sept. 29 so crews could replace the grate and concrete on the roadway of the 51-year-old drawbridge. Bradenton Beach Police Lt. John Cosby had a Cosby had a possible explanation for the jam.
"We didn’t have an accident or a breakdown on the road at that time," he said. "It could be that a lot of people decided to come out to the Island to drive over the bridge when it reopened."
Audrey Clarke, information officer for Parsons Brinckerhoff, the project’s managing contractor, said Quinn Construction crews were already preparing for an early opening.
"I talked to them around 4 p.m. and they were sweeping up the dust on the roadway and getting ready to open it," she said. "They got a call from one of the project managers later who asked if they could go ahead and open it because of the traffic jam."
In preparation for that soft opening, the crews took down signs warning that the bridge was closed around 4 p.m. and that may have led to the traffic jam, according to Manatee County Commissioner Carol Whitmore.
"They took down the warning signs on the mainland and cars started going toward the bridge," she said. "I’m sure the same thing happened on the Island."
Clarke said they notified a lot of the agencies that had made special preparations for the closure last week. She said the Cortez Bridge openings would remain as they have been during the closure and they will change back to normal after Nov. 13, the date the bridge was originally expected to be reopened.
The U.S. Coast Guard changed the opening times for the Cortez Bridge to minimize disruptions during heavy use periods, since it served as the only direct link to the mainland during the AMI Bridge closure. Those changes included no bridge openings for tall boats during rush hours and openings only on the half-hour during the daytime.
Clarke added that stoplights on the Island that had been re-timed for the project all would be changed back to normal during the next few days.
Whitmore said the county commission voted down a request to keep the right turn arrow for eastbound traffic on Manatee Avenue at 75th Street.
Clarke noted that rehabilitation would continue on the bridge up to April 2009, but there would not be anything more serious than lane closures during that time.
"They’ll be working on the substructure, the bascule piers and the deck," she said. Most of the work will be under the bridge."
Meanwhile, the speed limit across the bridge has been raised from 25 mph before the closure to 35 mph. The bridge remains a construction zone and those receiving speeding tickets while there are workers on the bridge will have to pay double fines, Clarke said.