PALMETTO -- Close to 400 people turned out Wednesday for a public hearing about sites for a Manatee River bridge crossing, with most in favor of a Fort Hamer Road alternative.
Many in the crowd wore chartreuse shirts reading: "For our bridge," referring to the two-lane Fort Hamer Road alternative recommended in a recently released draft environmental impact statement.
The URS Corp. prepared the study for Manatee County, which states a new Fort Hamer Bridge connecting Upper Manatee River Road to Fort Hamer Road is the preferred alternative for a new link over the river.
The study released by the U.S. Coast Guard includes two other alternatives: a "no build" option and expansion of the Rye Road Bridge.
Marty Peate, senior project manager for URS, estimated the cost of the Fort Hamer option at $30.2 million, and the Rye Road option at $80.8 million. The "no build" option would cost zero, he noted.
The Coast Guard public hearing at the Bradenton Area Convention Center in Palmetto was designed for public comments on the document.
Alicia Simat, in her 40s, told officials she suffered a cardiac emergency in 2011 and it took a half-hour to drive from her Parrish home to Lakewood Ranch Regional Medical Center.
Quick access to hospital facilities is important, she said, urging a bridge be built as soon as practical.
Forrest Williams, 31, said his oldest son, Jackson, was born the day after a tanker blew up in Ellenton on Interstate 75 in 2008, and everybody had to drive alternate routes.
His wife went into labor that eve
ning, and he had to drive 20 miles out of his way to reach Manatee Memorial Hospital, he said.
"She nearly had the baby in our driveway," he told officials. "If I can't get quick medical help for my children, or get them out of harm's way from a hurricane, or whatever the situation may be, I'll get out of town."
Sue Fox, 63, of Parrish, said emergency access is important for the 700 students at Williams Elementary School.
"Everybody talks about a hurricane," she said. "All it's going to take is another emergency. You could have a gas explosion or something around us. On U.S. 301 or Old Tampa Road; there's no other way to get out."
Tom Davidson, 59, representing the Waterlefe Homeowners Association, opposed the Fort Hamer option for its cost and because it would mar the beauty of his neighborhood.
"It's just a beautiful vista enjoyed by hundreds of people in Manatee County every day, whether they live here, visit here, on either side of the river," he said. "Once that bridge goes in, that'll be changed forever."
Some Waterlefe homeowners, he said, were surprised to learn of the possibility of a new bridge, since it was not disclosed when they bought homes, Davidson said.
Another speaker opposed bridge construction at Fort Hamer Road on environmental grounds.
Dik Hall told the crowd "the Fort Hamer project will have both permanent and secondary wetlands impacts."
Noting the Manatee County Commission voted Tuesday to protect wetlands from development at Long Bar Pointe that would have damaged sea grasses and mangroves, he asked: "I wonder if serious thought has been given to the wetlands relating to the Fort Hamer Bridge project?"
Construction on the project could begin within a year or two, depending on how long it takes to get the proper permits, officials said.
Oral and written comments will be considered by the Coast Guard, and added to the official docket, which is available for public review, said Randall Overton, Coast Guard project manager overseeing the report.
After the public review period ends Aug. 19, the Coast Guard will assemble comments and apply them to a Final Environmental Impact Statement with a final recommendation and approval.
To comment, go to regulations.gov; call 202-493-2251; send mail to: Docket Management Facility (M-30), U.S. Department of Transportation, West Building Ground Floor, Room W12-140, 1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE., Washington, DC 20590-0001; or call the docket management facility at 202-366-9329.
Information, go to forthamerbridge.com.
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.