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Date of Issue: November 01, 2007

Barford: Bridge closure will 'kill my city'

ami-drawbridge.jpg

If the Florida Department of Transportation follows through on its plan to close the Anna Maria Island Bridge for 75 days starting in early April as part of its bridge renovation project, it will be the death knell for Anna Maria and possibly the entire Island, said Anna Maria Mayor Fran Barford.

“This will absolutely kill my city,” Barford told Island mayors, DOT representatives and other officials at an Oct. 25 meeting in Bradenton Beach. The meeting was called to plan the agenda for the Oct. 29 public meeting at St. Bernard Catholic Church in Holmes Beach.

“Devastating,” added Bradenton Beach Mayor John Chappie, whose city will have to bear the brunt of Island traffic if the bridge closes for 75 days as planned.

“You informed us at the 11th hour and it’s going to be destroy our economy,” he told DOT director of area operations Deborah West.

Holmes Beach Mayor Rich Bohnenberger was not outwardly angry, but said the DOT needs to consider shifting the bridge closing to another time of year that’s not in the tourist season, such as September or October.

Tempers, however, were starting to run short, particularly since the DOT only informed local and Island elected officials about the planned closure three weeks ago.

Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce executive director Mary Ann Brockman was blunt about what will happen if the DOT goes ahead with its plan.

“We can’t live without tourism. Publix, Walgreens, CVS, the small restaurants and gift shops will all go under,” she predicted.

“If you close the bridge in early April you’re only giving us a five-week season and we can’t live with that,” said a frustrated Brockman.

West, however, tried to remain calm during the discussions as tempers started to heat up, but keeping the bridge open did not appear to be a viable option for the DOT.

“Don’t get frustrated with us,” she said. There has never been a DOT project that started at a good time. She apologized for not informing Island elected officials of the plan.

But that’s not going to help us right now, said Barford

She said closing the bridge in early April would ruin a number of the small businesses in her city that depend upon tourism. The DOT decision to close the bridge in April was ill-timed and done without consulting Island elected officials, she maintained.

But it’s not just the businesses that will suffer, added the mayor. There’s a serious concern for the health, safety and welfare of Island residents, especially those in Anna Maria.

“We’re at the end of the Island. We’re going to take the biggest hit. There’s a serious safety issue. It will take an ambulance or emergency vehicle at least an extra 40 minutes to get from the mainland using the Cortez Bridge. I’ve had people calling me who are scared to death. They’re asking me ‘What can I do?’ and I don’t have a good answer for them,” said an exasperated Barford.

She said she only learned of the DOT plans to close the bridge three weeks ago on Oct. 12 when she got a call from Manatee County Commissioner Carol Whitmore who, Barford said, had just learned of the DOT closure plan that day.

West defended the DOT’s decision to close the bridge in April rather than September or October as those two months are “prime” for the hurricane season. She said the bridge project can’t afford any delays from the weather.

DOT studies had indicated that April was the best month to close the bridge, she said, adding that she and other DOT officials from Bartow were “floored” to learn that the tourist season on the Island was still in full swing in April.

“We came up with a plan using the best information we had,” she said. “We picked those days as the best possible time frame.”

But changing the closure days is not out of the realm of possibility, she said.

 The DOT was willing to “consider all options” to help the Island, including asking the contractor - Quinn Construction of Palmetto - if it could delay closing the bridge until the tourist season ends, West said.

That could cost money, she noted.

That’s your problem, responded Chappie.

Don’t get upset, suggested West.

But before the DOT can approach the contractor, West said, it needs to gain as much information and input as possible from elected officials, governmental agencies and the public. West said she was counting on the public to provide comment at the Oct. 29 meeting.

Businessman Ed Chiles, who owns restaurants in Anna Maria, Bradenton Beach and on Longboat Key, would like to see the DOT forget about closing the bridge and keep at least one lane open for traffic while it effects repairs.

That’s not possible, said West, because the drawbridge needs to be raised for much of the 75 days.

Chiles said his best hope would be that the bridge would remain open during construction and not have to close, but West quashed that idea.

DOT studies indicate that by keeping one lane of traffic open, the backup for the other lane would create “gridlock” on Anna Maria Island and extend westbound traffic back toward Bradenton for up to nine miles.

How about postponing the project, suggested Chiles.

That’s not feasible because the bridge is already at a critical safety level, West said. If repairs aren’t begun in a few months, it will drop to a level where DOT officials will have no choice but to stop or limit any vehicular traffic from utilizing the bridge.

If the bridge has to be closed, then at the least change the closure dates, pleaded Chiles, but West said she could make no commitment or promise.

While the Sandbar Restaurant in Anna Maria will “take a hit” from the bridge closing in April, “We will survive. But this could be the end of the small businesses here. It’s going to be a severe economic blow to everyone on the Island. The timing of the closure is just not right,” he maintained.

Chiles noted that when he first heard about the bridge project (The Islander, May 9), there was no mention of any lengthy bridge closure.

“Had they said 75 days six months ago, it would have set off the panic button with me and I’m sure a lot of other people,” Chiles said.

Chiles said there is a ground-swell of support for a new bridge, but West said that’s a project that will take from five to seven years to get designed and funded before construction would even start. A feasibility study for a new bridge is already in the works, she added.

Finger-pointing didn’t accomplish much at the meeting, although West assured the mayors several times that the DOT intends to work with the Island to overcome problems and find alternatives to the April closure.

“I’m optimistic, but not real optimistic about that promise,” said Chiles.

Barford wanted to be optimistic, but noted that she and the other Island mayors were only brought into the loop three weeks ago, and that was from a county commissioner, not the DOT. The DOT has yet to inspire a lot of trust on the Island.

“I just hope we can find a solution that works,” she said. “Closing the bridge this April will destroy us.”

As of Monday, just prior to the public meeting, it did appear that the DOT was working feverishly to find an acceptable “option.”

DOT representatives met last week with Island law enforcement officials, heads of the public works departments of the Island cities and Manatee County, Chief Andy Price of the West Manatee Fire Rescue District and other public officials.

A DOT spokesperson said it would present “options” to the contractor, Quinn Construction Co., as soon as possible after the Oct. 29 meeting.

 

Quinn mum

If Quinn Construction Company in Palmetto is open to any suggestions to alter its time schedule to not close the bridge in early April, it’s not telling the public, at least not yet.

Efforts to reach a spokesperson for the company in Palmetto were unsuccessful. The person who answered the telephone at the company office said the owners were not in and all calls related to the bridge had to go through the DOT. She declined to identify the owners of the company, although Quinn Construction Co. has contract worth $9.1 million in public funds.

According to the Florida Department of Commerce Web site, Quinn Construction Inc. is a for-profit company with owners Thomas Quinn and Suzanne Quinn. Michele Connolly is listed as the company secretary. The company has been in business since 1997.

The company underwent voluntary bankruptcy through the federal bankruptcy court in Tampa in 1995.

 

Public meeting report online

A complete report of the public “town hall” meeting on the bridge issue held Oct. 29 at St. Bernard Catholic Church in Holmes Beach is in The Islander online edition at www.islander.org.

The story will also appear in the Nov. 7 print issue.

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