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Date of Issue: July 30, 2008

DOT says bridge closure date can't be changed

/7-30-08/ami-brdg-rehab.jpg
Squeezed
The eastbound traffic lane of the Anna Maria Island Bridge has been "narrowed" considerably for motorists in a work safety measure as crews for Quinn Construction Inc. will be closing one lane of traffic on Thursday and/or Friday nights until at least the end of August to repair pile jackets. Islander Photo: Rick Catlin

Any hopes of getting the Florida Department of Transportation to move the closing date of the Anna Maria Island Bridge forward to early September have been quashed.

Responding to a July 17 request by a group of Island business owners to have the date moved forward, the DOT said in a press release that “the department has concluded it is not possible to change the closure period for several reasons.”

The business group was brought together by The Islander after a number of owners and managers expressed reservations about the Sept. 29 closure date. Some at the meeting questioned the DOT and its contractor’s ability to finish the job on time.

The DOT said it would take at least 60 calendar days to get the U.S. Coast Guard to change its “temporary final rule” for closing dates and the bridge contractor “would not be able to start work until this rule was posted to the Federal Register.”

Additionally, the DOT said custom materials needed during the bridge closure “will not be available” if the date was moved forward and some of the subcontractors are committed elsewhere in September.

But the DOT is offering a helping hand to Islanders.

The press release noted that the DOT is “committed” to improving the Gulf Drive-Cortez Road intersection and traffic signal modifications “in an effort to alleviate traffic congestion during the bridge closure.”

The DOT said it has been “communicating the closure dates to the public since last fall in order to prepare and notify residents, businesses owners, suppliers, government officials and others.” To change the closure date now would “create confusion on the part of the public.”

But Islander newspaper publisher Bonner Joy and Manatee County Commissioner Joe McClash said they have been requesting the earlier closure to no avail since the Sept. 29 closure was announced last year by the DOT.

The business owners had met at The Islander offices in an attempt to have the DOT change the closure date to include all of September after Labor Day and the first two weeks of October.

Business owners unanimously agreed that September is the slowest month for tourism and retail activity and the winter season traditionally begins in October as part-time residents and some visitors begin their annual migration to Florida and Anna Maria Island.

Another fear among the owners is that the bridge re-opening will be delayed - as many public projects finish late - and any delay in the re-opening will infringe upon the Thanksgiving holiday, a “make-or-break” week for many Island accommodations, restaurants and retail outlets.

Without the “life-line” to the mainland, visitors and mainland residents may decide to bypass Anna Maria Island, many owners said at the meeting.

Lois Gift of Whitney Bank in Holmes Beach said the bank has had customers calling to say they won’t be back for this winter season until the bridge reopens.

Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce executive director Mary Ann Brockman said quite a few visitors planning a winter trip to the Island have already called the chamber to say they won’t be coming until the bridge is open.

Without visitors, Brockman fears many Island businesses will simply close.

“I’m not surprised at their answer,” said Brockman. “But many of us have been saying since the [closing] date was first announced that it was unacceptable. Our fear is that the bridge will still be closed by Thanksgiving.

“If the DOT can build an entire bridge in three weeks, it would seem they can move this date forward without any problem,” said Brockman, referring to the recent truck accident on Interstate 75 that resulted in demolishing and rebuilding an overpass bridge.

Do not expect the AMI Bridge to re-open Nov. 13, said businesswoman Dee Schaefer of the Manatee Beach Café and Gift Shop. With 21 years in business on the Island, she’s seen more than her share of government-financed projects and “none of them ever finished on time,” she said.

If the bridge is still closed Nov. 14, it will be tough luck for us, she said. The DOT doesn’t work here.

 “We won’t survive” if the bridge doesn’t open on time, predicted Dave Russell, owner of Rotten Ralph’s.

But Russell’s plea apparently didn’t result in any changes from the DOT.

Commissioner McClash said he was not surprised to learn the DOT could not, or would not, change its dates.

“It’s one of those things that’s infuriating, that we are still trying to request a different day,” the commissioner said. “I’m disappointed. I voiced these concerns last year,” McClash said, yet the DOT took no action.

McClash promised to petition the DOT to open the bridge to vehicular traffic for the Thanksgiving holiday if the bridge fails to reopen Nov. 13 as planned.

“I would lobby to reopen the bridge for that week, and I’m sure the DOT would be sensitive to the wishes of the Island,” he said.

McClash did note that the contractor faces a $10,000 per day fine for every day after Nov. 13 that the bridge is not open for vehicular traffic.

 

Dates and seasons

The DOT seems to have had “difficulty” with dates since the inception of the $9.2 million AMI Bridge rehabilitation project.

With no advance notice to the Island public or input from Island elected officials or business owners, the DOT arbitrarily announced in October 2007 that the bridge would close for 75 days starting April 1. DOT officials said they based their closing date on “information” they received that the Island’s tourist season had ended by that date.

Following a public outcry that this schedule would seriously disrupt the Island’s tourism, the DOT presented Islanders with three options for closing the bridge, but gave no specific dates.

After Islanders voted for a 45-day full bridge closure as opposed to a 105-day closure with one lane open to vehicular traffic, the DOT announced a Sept. 29 closing and a Nov. 13 re-opening.

The Sept. 29 date was chosen out of DOT fears that any earlier closing date might encounter a hurricane. Statistically, the height of the hurricane season is Sept. 10, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Brockman found it difficult to believe that the DOT was so concerned about a hurricane that it would jeopardize an entire economy. “Hurricane season lasts until Nov. 30. They could easily have chosen an earlier date,” she said.

Responding to the DOT press statement, The Islander posed a series of questions and asked the DOT to confirm its information about the Coast Guard, the sub-contractors and availability of materials.

Efforts to reach the U.S. Coast Guard in Miami for comment on the 60-day waiting period for publication in the Federal Register were unsuccessful.

 

Correction

The telephone number for Ed Gonzalez, director of operations at DOT District 1 in Bartow, is 863-519-2202.

 

Friday night lights on AMI Bridge

The Florida Department of Transportation is now having its own version of “Friday Night Lights” on the bridge, at least until the end of August.

A DOT press release states the agency and bridge contractor Quinn Construction Inc. of Palmetto “have scheduled continuous night-time lane closures every Thursday and/or Friday from now until the end of August.” The DOT had previously announced lane closures for Thursday nights.

Quinn needs one lane of traffic closed to repair pile jackets with concrete, the release said.

Motorists can expect the closures to occur between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m., weather permitting.

Only one lane of traffic will be closed and flaggers will be used to move traffic through the lane closure, the DOT said.

For the latest information on the project, go on the Web to www.islander.org for a link to the project. People without Internet access can call 941-792-0369. Islander Photo: Rick Catlin

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