Fort Hamer Road bridge across Manatee River leads choices; Coast Guard releases draft EIS

skennedy@bradenton.comJuly 30, 2013 

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is a corrected version of the article that first appeared July 29.

MANATEE -- A long-awaited environmental study for another north-south Manatee River crossing near Parrish recommends a new two-lane fixed bridge at Fort Hamer Road.

The draft study released by the U.S. Coast Guard concludes a new bridge would provide improved traffic mobility and a better north-south route linking high-growth areas east of Interstate 75.

It calls for a bridge connecting the existing two-lane Upper Manatee River Road on the south to the two-lane Fort Hamer Road on the north.

The new bridge, approaches and roadway required would be about 1.2 miles. Also being considered considered are a "no-build" option and a Rye Road alternative, but neither was its preferred choice, according to the study.

Construction is still at least two years away since officials must first issue a final environmental impact statement, said Charlie Hunsicker, director of the Manatee County Natural Resources Department.

Before the county can begin work, several federal and state agencies must issue permits, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

A public meeting from 4 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. will be held Aug. 7 at the Bradenton Area Convention Center in Palmetto. The public comment period closes Aug. 18.

County officials stressed that the bridge's site has not been approved yet.

"It's vitally important that those who are in support of the bridge -- or opposed to the bridge -- attend the public hearing," Manatee Public Works Director Ron Schulhofer said Wednesday. "They need to supply comment on the need for the bridge, and any positive feedback on location of the bridge on the Upper Manatee River.

Manatee County hired URS Corp., a Tampa-based provider of engineering, construction and technical services for public agencies and private sector companies, to complete the draft EIS.

Officials decided to fund a scaled-down version of the bridge to expedite construction, said Hunsicker. A 2011 estimate set the cost at about $21 million, according to the Herald archives.

Short-term impacts related to construction would include loss of wetlands and upland habitats, increased traffic, noise and costs, the study found.

"Studies have shown that there is a strong demand for multiple crossings over this waterway to alleviate the traffic burden on I-75," according to the report.

Such a bridge would accommodate growth, improve evacuation capacity and emergency response times, and improve the efficiency of the local roadway network, according to the report.

"I think it's fantastic," said Ben Jordan, vice president of the Parrish Civic Association. "All along, this has been an issue of public safety, and when you look at it from that standpoint, (it will provide) better access to EMS services and a better route during a mandatory evacuation."

In 2009, county commissioners dusted off an aging bridge plan and voted to move ahead after a tanker truck crash and explosion destroyed I-75's southbound overpass at U.S. 301 in Ellenton, creating several days of gridlock in June 2008.

Major environmental impacts of the Fort Hamer alternative included a "large increase in traffic on Upper Manatee River Road and Fort Hamer Road," and more impacts on natural resources than the Rye Road alternative, the study said.

The Rye Road option calls for widening the existing bridge from two to four lanes, and widening Rye and Fort Hamer roads to accommodate extra traffic.

The Fort Hamer alternative would affect 2.91 acres of essential fish habitat, while the Rye Road alternative would impact none, according to the report.

The environmental group ManaSota-88 "continues to have concerns about the direct impact the bridge will have on the water quality of the Manatee River and any secondary environmental impacts that will result due to increases in erosion and siltation and the possible need for future dredging of the river," wrote Chairman Glenn Compton.

Residents of the Waterlefe subdivision objected saying their property values would decline.

"Most definitely, it will affect property value. To what extent depends on where your property is located and the sights, sounds, view and traffic in and out of Waterlefe," said Debi Chaffee, a real estate agent with Wagner Realty.

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.

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