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Opinions mixed on AMI Bridge’s future

HOLMES BEACH — State transportation officials offered a smorgasbord of options Tuesday for the Anna Maria Island Bridge’s future, but there was little agreement among those attending a public workshop on what to choose.

Some advocated operating the aging drawbridge for as long as possible, saying it’s an integral part of the island’s character. Others said it should be demolished in the future but couldn’t agree on what type of bridge — another drawbridge? A fixed span? — should replace it.

The lack of consensus was no surprise, given the numbers: More than 90 people filtered through a church fellowship hall to review eight possible futures for the crossing. Florida Department of Transportation officials are studying those options, which range from maintaining the existing bridge for another quarter-century to replacing it with a high-level, fixed span, as part of a study to determine the crossing’s future.

FDOT officials held the workshop to get public input, and got a wide range of opinions.

Some, like John Burda, favored replacing the 51-year-old span with a similar drawbridge. He argued against a high-level bridge, saying winds would be much stronger and cause problems for ambulances, fire trucks and other high-profile vehicles.

“I want the same-size bridge as we’ve got now,” said the engineer from Anna Maria, who said wind often blows around furniture on his second-story deck but not at ground level. “I worry about the winds at higher levels.”

Island residents made the same argument in successfully derailing a previous FDOT decision to build a high-level replacement bridge, leading to the ongoing rehabilitation of the existing bridge and the current study.

Mary Schmidt, a real-estate agent from Bradenton, said a proposed fixed bridge with 65 feet of vertical clearance underneath was, and still is, the best option.

“If you do it (replace the bridge), might as well do the highest (bridge) possible,” she said. “They’ve eventually going to have to do it anyway... they should have done this 10, 15 years ago and been done with it.”

Nancy Deal, though, said the current bridge is just fine and should remain. But if it has to be replaced, it shouldn’t be with anything but a similar structure, said the Holmes Beach resident and member of Save Anna Maria, the grassroots group that led the challenge against FDOT’s earlier high-level bridge decision.

“No one is against a new bridge,” she said. “If we have to have a new bridge, let’s make it as low as possible.”

That decision point could come in as little as a decade, FDOT officials said.

The current rehabilitation project will extend the bridge’s life by 10 to 15 years, after which it will either need to be rehabilitated again or replaced, FDOT said. Another rehab would cost another $72.8 million and extend the bridge’s expected lifespan to the year 2034, at which time it absolutely will have to be replaced, said Chris Piazza, an FDOT project manager.

Building, operating and maintaining a similar drawbridge would cost roughly $127 million, while it’s $137 million for a higher drawbridge. At $102 million, a fixed span is the cheapest replacement option because of lower operating and maintenance costs, Piazza said.

No money has been budgeted for building a replacement bridge, however.

FDOT officials will incorporate comments from Tuesday’s workshop in recommending one or possibly more options early next year.

The final recommendation will be presented for public review at a second meeting in March, after which it will submitted to the U.S. Coast Guard for its review and approval.