MANATEE -- The U.S. Coast Guard may grant "advance approval" for a proposed bridge over the Braden River, exempting county officials from obtaining its bridge permit and speeding construction of the 44th Avenue Roadway Project between Bradenton and Lakewood Ranch.
Coast Guard officials are seeking comments from mariners and others about whether it should issue advance approval for the proposed bridge.
Work on 44th Avenue East is already underway, but Manatee County's effort to build another east-west road would be interrupted at the Braden River without a bridge permit.
The entire project from U.S. 41 on the west to Lakewood Ranch Boule
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vard on the east is expected to cost $120.7 million, according to a July quarterly status report from Ron Schulhofer, Manatee County public works director.
The 1,500-foot bridge is expected to cost about $33 million, according to Kent Bontrager, county project manager. Total expenditures to date are $16,669,156, according to the report.
The project is paid for by gas taxes, road impact fees, transportation bonds and a $1,530,150 contribution from the Florida Department of Transportation.
The bridge would cross the Braden River about 4.3 miles south of its confluence with the Manatee River in the vicinity of 44th Avenue, according to a letter the Coast Guard sent last month to residents nearby.
The river harbors a rich assortment of wildlife, including many of the county mascot -- manatees.
"Of all the rivers that flow to Tampa Bay, it has the highest density of wetlands," Ernie Estevez, retired director of Mote Marine Laboratory's Center for Coastal Ecology and a specialist who has studied tidal rivers, told the Bradenton Herald in 2009 and reiterated Sunday. "Acre for acre, the Braden River has more mangroves and salt marshes than any of the other rivers."
If the Coast Guard does grant advance approval, then navigational clearances, which provide for high water stages, will be considered adequate.
"An advance approval is granted for waterways, which are navigable in law but not actually navigated other than by rowboats, canoes and small motorboats," the letter states.
Existing bridges along state roads 64 and 70 were previously granted advance approvals, the letter said, but it warned such approval "does not relieve the county of the responsibility to ensure compliance with applicable federal, state or local laws and regulations for the proposed project."
Speeding the permitting process is unnecessary, and only being done to expedite area growth and development, said Glenn Compton, director of the environmental group ManaSota-88.
"As a result, less attention will be given to the environmental impacts associated with the bridge crossing the Braden River. Safeguarding against potential river impacts should be a top priority," he said.
If the bridge is built, it will allow a different type of river pollution: Stormwater runoff from the bridge will introduce new toxins such as petroleums and heavy metals, Compton said.
"Pollution associated with increased traffic and runoff will likely increase over time and will likely be much greater than is anticipated," he added.
The Coast Guard is seeking comments specifically about an advance approval's "effect of navigation on this stretch of the Braden River."
If advance approval is granted, it would cut the time only for Coast Guard review, said Randall Overton, federal permit agent for the U.S. Coast Guard in Miami.
"They still have all other obligations," he said, noting the Coast Guard doesn't review environmental matters, anyway -- the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers does.
The schedule for the bridge portion of the road project written by Schulhofer referred to "document preparation to meet National Environmental Policy Act requirements and 'submission of environmental assessment to the U.S. Coast Guard.'"
Manatee County project engineer Bontrager said once all comments are in, the Coast Guard will evaluate what it has received and respond to navigational issues.
"They're mainly looking at it from a navigational point of view," Bontrager said. "When we do a project with any kind of environmental permitting requirements or any kind of federal money, it requires that the NEPA Act must be satisfied.
"With the Coast Guard the lead federal agency, if the Coast Guard advanced approval goes through, the Coast Guard basically says they're giving approval on the bridge permit, and then, the lead agency will become the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers," said Bontrager.
At that point, the county will begin the design process on the bridge, just like on any other project, said Bontrager.
Monday is the final day for comment, said but Overton will allow extra time if needed, he said. To comment, write Commander, Seventh Coast Guard District, 909 S.E. First Ave., Room 432, Miami FL 33131; or contact project manager Randall Overton, 305-415-6736, or by email, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Meanwhile, construction continues on the massive road project. According to Schulhofer's report:
A section of road from U.S. 41 to U.S. 301 has already been completed and opened to traffic.
Construction began in July 2013 along another section from U.S. 41 to 19th Street Court East with completion slated for September 2015.
Officials are in the process of land acquisition for a stretch from 19th Street Court East to 30th Street East and for a stretch from 30th Street East to 45th Street East. Construction on both is slated for 2015-16.
The portion of the project, including the bridge crossing, from 45th Street East across the river to Caruso Road is in the permitting stage with environmental field work completed and alignment alternative layouts underway.
Design and permitting is programmed for 2017-18 for a stretch from Caruso Road to Creekwood Boulevard, and from Creekwood Boulevard to Lakewood Ranch Boulevard.
Design plans for widening 45th Street East between S.R. 70 and 44th Avenue East are virtually complete. Acquisition of right-of-way is being accelerated to meet the community desire to complete 45th Street East simultaneously with the 44th Avenue East portion from 30th Street East to 45th Street East. The county anticipates the final plans for bidding in the fall this year.
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.