The bridge replacement controversy that began 16 years ago has erupted once again.
State transportation officials last week announced their preference for a new 65-foot tall, fixed-span bridge to take the place of the Anna Maria Island drawbridge.
Speaking before a large room full of elected and appointed officials from all around Manatee County, Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) engineer Chris Piazza said they chose the big bridge option based on the public’s responses at meetings and in a survey and because it was cheaper.
"After considering public input and making a comparison of costs, including maintenance and operating, we have decided on the high-level bridge with a southern alignment and the cross section B (with two sidewalks)," he said. "We will take this recommendation to the Manatee County Board of Commissioners and, if they approve it, we will send it to the U.S. Coast Guard."
Piazza said that if the Coast Guard adopts it, the project will be eligible to advance to the design phase. As for funding, there is nothing funded at this time, although the county commissioners asked the state legislative delegation to support a request for $12 million for engineering.
Not so fast
Reaction to the announcement was mixed. Save Anna Maria (SAM) President Ursula Stemm said her group is ready to fight the high bridge again, like they did when FDOT tried to build one in 1993.
"We contacted the same attorney we used for the fight before (David Levin) and he told us what to look for," she said. "It’s still talk at this point."
One of the supporters of the high bridge when it was announced 16 years ago said she smiled when she heard the news.
"A tall bridge is not going to bring any more people to the Island than the bascule bridge," said Pat Geyer, former Holmes Beach commissioner and mayor. "The talk about higher winds on a tall bridge doesn’t scare me."
Bradenton Beach Police Chief Sam Speciale said his main concern is getting emergency crews on and off the Island.
West Manatee Fire Rescue Chief Andy Price said his main concern for a bridge is safety and an emergency lane would mean a lot.
"People don’t know what to do on the bridge when they see an emergency vehicle with lights and siren behind them," Price said. "They tend to pull over and stop, but with no safety lane, the emergency vehicle can’t get around them."
Price said they turn off their lights and siren when they approach one of the drawbridges so people won’t stop.
Marty Dutschayver, owner of Sun and Surf, said he likes the aesthetics of the drawbridge, but he recalls how he felt as a fire commission member when the issue came up in 1993.
"I have to think that a tall fixed span will save lives," he said. "Aesthetically, I would rather have things like they were in 1960 and have them put back the toll gate."
FDOT to seek approval
Piazza said the two-county Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) would listen to their findings and if somebody makes a good argument for one of the other choices, they would reconsider.
"Whether this is what we will take to the Coast Guard is still not set in stone," he added.
He did say, however, that there would be no more hearings to gather opinions from the public. FDOT held three such public meetings over the past six months and the results of a public poll showed that 70 percent prefer a high-level fixed bridge, 4 percent would like a mid-level drawbridge, 21 percent prefer a low-level drawbridge and 5 percent favor another solution or had no preference.
The history of the bridge includes one failed attempt to replace it with a high-level bridge. Built in 1957, the bridge showed its age in 1992, when FDOT regional director David May came to the city governments and told them that they had decided to replace the drawbridge with a 65-foot-high fixed span. That announcement created a public uproar, due mainly to the fact that there had been little, if any, news that a replacement was being considered.
Some of those opposed banded together to form Save Anna Maria (SAM), which hired an attorney and finally proved that FDOT had not followed procedure in alerting the public to the project and it was scrapped.
When FDOT announced in late 2007 that it was going to refurbish the bridge to the tune of almost $10 million, members of the public asked FDOT to consider replacing the bridge, instead. The highway department said it could not because the funds were set aside for the rehabilitation, not replacement of the bridge, but they did agree to do a study on replacing it and said they would seek funding later. The newly refurbished structure is expected to last up to 25 years.