MANATEE -- It's as tight as the presidential race.
Citizens are split 50-50 over whether the proposed Fort Hamer bridge should be built, according to Evelyn Smart, the Coast Guard project manager.
She bases that on the citizen comments submitted online and the letters that she has seen.
It doesn't mean that the bridge decision will be based on a popularity contest, but each citizen objection or statement of support must be considered.
Citizens interested in whether the bridge should be built may soon have the opportunity to express their views face-to-face with federal and local officials at a public hearing, maybe as soon as December.
Or it may take longer, depending on completion of an environmental impact statement.
"We've been back and forth," Smart said recently of the process of reviewing a draft version of the study, and sending it back to Manatee County and its consultant, URS Corporation Southern, for more work.
The public hearing is a requirement of the environmental impact study, required by the Coast Guard, the lead federal agency on the project because the Manatee River is considered a navigable waterway.
"It's a long process. They had to do a lot of corrections and revisions. It takes a long time," Smart said.
Ron Schulhofer, Manatee County's public works director, said county officials and URS went through a line-by-line draft of the study with Coast Guard officials via teleconference in September.
"The Coast Guard seemed satisfied and asked for a bit more information," Schulhofer said.
The Coast Guard, which is under no deadline to complete the study, uses the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 as its guide in monitoring preparation of the study.
"If they have the final draft completed by November, I can see going to a public meeting," Smart said, but added that having a hearing in December is still only a guess at this point.
A bridge at Fort Hamer has been on the drawing board for about 20 years.
Originally, Manatee County sought federal highway funds for the project, but pulled the plug in 2007 after it had been required to complete an environmental impact statement.
The county then decided to build the bridge without federal funding, only to be required by the Coast Guard to complete an environmental impact study anyway.
Smart said she has visited the Fort Hamer bridge area by land and water to see where everything fits and to look at boat traffic and the potential impact on wildlife.
"I also went to areas where people complained it would create an eyesore and looked at where it touched down," she said.
Manatee County has also been required to look at an alternative north-south corridor, Rye Road, which already has a two-lane bridge.
Manatee County officials, however, do not believe that the Rye Road alternative would justify expansion to four lanes.
According to the Man-atee County website on the Fort Hamer bridge proposal:
"Based on traffic generation/demand projections from the Manatee/Sarasota 2030 Long Range Transportation Plan (LRTP) model and using updated 2035 socio-economic datasets, Rye Road does not generate or attract enough traffic in the reasonably foreseeable future to justify the investment of expansion to 4-lanes. The Fort Hamer crossing location, however, demonstrates the near-term need for a 2-lane crossing and a reasonable horizon for expansion to 4-lanes."
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee editor, can be contacted at 941-745-7021 or tweet @jajones1.