FDOT, forget the idea of high bridge at historic Cortez

July 26, 2013 

The historic fishing village of Cortez inspires many a nostalgic moment for times past with fish markets, bait shops and boat docks in weathered wood stretched across the Sarasota Bay waterfront.

Beyond the village's character and charm being vital to the fabric of this community, Cortez contributes mightily to Manatee County's economy through commercial fishing operations as well as boat charters and other businesses dependent on tourism.

As the oldest surviving fishing village in Florida -- settled back in the 1880s -- Cortez is a treasure to be protected. Descendants of the village's founding families, proud to call themselves Cortezians, are the passionate leaders of preservation.

But the village, connected to Anna Maria Island via the appropriately named Cortez Bridge, is once again concerned about the future.

The Florida Department of Transportation is once again studying the deteriorating bridge, built in 1956. Because Cortez Road doubles as State Road 684, FDOT is responsible for the bridge.

At this week's board meeting of the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization, Manatee County members expressed the widely help opinion that FDOT should not "destroy" the village by building a high, fixed bridge.

Maybe engineers can design a high span that would not wreck Cortez, but even at that the village's distinct character would forever be lost.

The state agency is also considering a low-level drawbridge like the current structure and a mid-level drawbridge.

At the MPO meeting, FDOT representatives revealed the results of surveys taken in February during the Cortez Fishing Festival and in April at a crowded town hall meeting about the project. Small majorities at both favored bridge rehabilitation over replacement.

Rehabilitation could perhaps lengthen the bridge's life span by 25 years, while a new bridge with modern design techniques could last 75 years. We'd like to see cost comparisons when FDOT's current study is completed in two years or so.

But only with the new span looking like the current drawbridge. We'd also like to see a replacement design that provides much wider and safer sidewalks to accommodate pedestrians, bikers and fishermen.

Surely FDOT has learned its lesson from previous battles over the bridge. In the late 1980s, the agency proposed a 65-foot fixed span but retreated after howls of protest.

A 2009 study also recommended a tall, fixed bridge, but once again bowed to public pressure. At this April's town hall, some 170 people showed up.

Passion for Cortez runs deep.

Let history be the agency's guide. This community will simply not accept a towering structure at Cortez. Such a span would also have a damaging impact on Bradenton Beach, too.

Unlike the Anna Maria Bridge, where there's plenty of land for a tall, fixed span, both landings of a tall Cortez Bridge would likely cause the destruction of businesses and residences on both sides.

FDOT expects to return to Manatee County in July 2014 to hold a public hearing on plans for rehabilitation, which could take up to a decade to complete.

Meanwhile, we'll continue to drive across a "structurally deficient bridge" that's in "pretty bad shape," in the words of an FDOT project manager.

Then, in another year or two after that, the agency will present a report on a replacement span.

The idea of tall bridges should be erased from the drawing board.

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