Finally, Fort Hamer bridge project clears another hurdle

August 2, 2013 

The concept of a Fort Hamer bridge surfaced almost 45 years ago. The county has been actively pursuing the project for more than a decade, coming up against one roadblock after another.

As growth in East Manatee continues to blossom from Parrish south to Lakewood Ranch, another bridge across the Manatee River has become even more essential to greater traffic mobility. Emergency response times and hurricane and disaster evacuation capacity will improve immensely as well.

Finally, three years after the Coast Guard halted progress on the project and ordered the county to expand its environmental impact statement to include a Rye Road alternative, Manatee County received the federal agency's recommendation on its preference. Not only did the Coast Guard recommend construction of a two-lane fixed bridge linking Fort Hamer Road north of the river to Upper Manatee River Road on the south, the agency dismissed the alternative favored by Fort Hamer bridge opponents -- expansion of the Rye Road bridge several miles to the east.

The third option in the study was called "no build," an objectionable alternative given the continuing growth out east.

The Coast Guard's reports states: "The Rye Road Alternative is not being recommended because it does not satisfy elements of the stated Purpose and Need as well as the Fort Hamer Alternative; it is more costly, and more impactful to the human environment." That's because the Rye route would entail expanding several existing roads from two to four lanes along some 10 miles.

Because the Manatee River is a navigable waterway, the Coast Guard had to ensure the county's impact statement, prepared by URS Corp., complied with federal law. The agency found the Fort Hamer route would have larger environmental impacts than the Rye Road option but the agency determined the "unavoidable impacts ... would be mitigated in accordance with federal and state permit requirements."

Opposition drops

Once widespread, opposition eroded over the years as East Manatee's population increased with the construction of residential developments.

Adjacent to the Fort Hamer bridge site, the Waterlefe neighborhood will be impacted. In approving the development, county commissioners required the developer to disclose in writing to every home buyer that a bridge would be built next to the neighborhood. That "buyer beware" clause didn't stop this first-class golf development from becoming successful and popular, though.

In November 2011, we opined our admiration for Waterlefe residents who fought the good fight and then joined the bridge design process -- making the best out of a difficult situation. We also expressed appreciation for county officials working diligently to avoid an adversarial relationship with residents, opting for a transparent process with a lot of outreach to address concerns and clear up false information.

Eastern bridge vital

The importance of another bridge across the Manatee River became all the more apparent after a horrific tanker truck crash and explosion destroyed Interstate 75's southbound overpass at Highway 301 in Ellenton in June 2008.

Traffic had to be rerouted through downtown Bradenton and Palmetto for several agonizing days of complete gridlock before southbound I-75 traffic could be diverted onto northbound lanes of the highway. Emergency vehicles would have been stalled trying to cross the Green or DeSoto bridges. A bridge at Fort Hamer would have alleviated the traffic snarl.

In the wake of that incident, county commissioners voted to forge ahead with the project in 2009. Then the Coast Guard interrupted progress.

Looking ahead

Moving forward, Manatee County must still clear additional hurdles. After issuing a final environmental impact statement, the county must get permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

One issue is the impact on almost three acres of prime fish habitat, but Coast Guard approval should be a sign of smooth sailing through the remaining permitting process.

First, however, the Coast Guard will host a public meeting to discuss its report from 4-6:30 p.m. Aug. 7 at the Bradenton Area Convention Center in Palmetto. The public comment period closes Aug. 18.

Bridge construction still appears to be at least two years ago. But considering the lengthy time line already characterizing this project, at least this key connector in a major north-south traffic corridor is moving once again.

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