ANNA MARIA ISLAND – The Cortez and Manatee Avenue bridges are now to be opened twice an hour instead of three times an hour from 6 a.m. until 7 p.m.
The Coast Guard-approved changes to the drawbridge opening schedules for two of the Island’s three drawbridges took effect Oct. 5. The amended final rule, Title 33 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Part 117, was entered in the Federal Register on Sept. 5.
Both bridges will now be raised on the quarter hour and the three-quarter hour – 15 minutes after the hour and 45 minutes after the hour – on a year-round basis.
Before the federal regulation was changed, the bridges could be opened three times an hour for eight months a year at 20 minutes after the hour, 40 minutes after the hour and on the hour. During peak season, Jan. 15 to May 15, the bridge openings were limited to twice an hour to lessen traffic congestion on Cortez Road and Manatee Avenue.
The amended bridge opening schedule does not apply to the Longboat Pass Bridge at the south end of the Island, but does apply to the Stickney Point and Siesta Drive bridges in Sarasota.
News of the amended schedule came as a surprise to Anna Maria Mayor Dan Murphy. When contacted last week, Murphy said he received no notice of the change. Monday morning, he spoke with Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) Executive Director David Hutchinson and Hutchinson told him he had not been notified either.
“FDOT notified all bridgetenders of the schedule changes well before the rule became effective. All bridge signage has been modified to reflect the changes. Additionally, the change was advertised in the Local Notice to Mariners for a full month prior to the effective date,” Lt. Ashley Holm said in a Nov. 27 e-mail response to The Sun. Holm is the Ports and Waterways Branch Chief for the Coast Guard’s St. Petersburg Sector.
The Cortez and Manatee Avenue bridges are operated by bridgetenders subcontracted by the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT).
FDOT District Structures Maintenance Engineer Jim Jacobsen said signs are now in place that notify vehicular traffic of the amended bridge opening schedule.
According to federal regulations, drawbridges must also be opened upon request at any time for a U.S. Government vessel, including the Coast Guard, a vessel in distress or a vessel or barge under tow.
The Cortez and Manatee Avenue bridges are tended 24 hours a day, seven days a week and the new twice-an-hour restrictions do not apply between 7 p.m. and 6 a.m., when the bridge can be opened at any time.
Jacobsen said bridge openings are logged and he addressed a past inquiry initiated by some Island residents.
“We’ve had some inquiries saying the bridge is opened unnecessarily. We checked our records and never found any evidence of that,” Jacobsen said, noting that the contract for the bridge tenders is performance based.
“They do have an incentive to operate the bridge according to federal regulations,” he added.
A lengthy process
The bridge timing changes were originally requested on behalf of the Island Transportation Planning Organization (ITPO) that includes the Anna Maria, Bradenton Beach and Holmes Beach mayors, MPO representatives and others. These discussions originated in early 2014, when traffic and congestion were frequent topics of discussion at ITPO meetings.
In early 2015, Hutchinson submitted to the U.S. Coast Guard a letter formally requesting the change sought by the three Island cities – a request that also included the Longboat Pass Bridge at the south end of the Island.
In May 2016, Seventh Coast Guard District Bridge Administration Program Director Barry Dragon sent a letter to Hutchinson informing him that the request to alter the Longboat Pass Bridge timing was denied.
“The Coast Guard is unable to approve a change to this bridge schedule, as this could lead to multiple vessel accidents and bridge allisions,” Dragon’s letter to Hutchinson said.
Last February, the Island mayors were notified of a public comment period that would close that April.
“There were seven comments opposing the final rule. Six comments were against modifying the existing schedule and one comment suggested that even with this modified scheduled the bridge will still open too often. Four comments stated that having vessels waiting for a half-hour for a bridge to open could be a safety concern,” the updated Federal Register states.