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Neal offering to build bridge if repaid by stimulus

EAST MANATEE — Pat Neal wants to build another bridge for Manatee County.

The well-known developer and his son, John, plan to appear before county commissioners Tuesday and offer to get the stalled Tara bridge built.

In return, the county would pay the estimated $15.3 million cost through a federal economic-stimulus program.

“I think it’s a win-win-win-win for everybody,” Pat Neal said Friday of the proposal, which mimics one that he and two business partners submitted last year to jump-start the proposed Fort Hamer Bridge in Parrish.

The proposed Tara bridge would cross the Braden River, connecting Tara Boulevard and Honore Avenue.

The county began planning for it more than a decade ago, primarily to relieve congestion on State Road 70 and serve as an alternate route to Interstate 75.

But the project’s fate has been in limbo since late 2007, when it was pulled from the county’s capital-improvement program. Officials said rising cost estimates and a shift in priorities prompted the removal.

Another factor in that decision: The county and Pat Neal couldn’t agree on a sales price for roughly 3.8 acres needed for the bridge’s southern side.

Pat Neal said his proposal would resolve that dispute by including the land in the overall price.

The proposal calls for building a 1,185-foot-long bridge that would be four lanes wide, following the county’s design. It also includes constructing four-lane extensions of the roads leading up to it.

Unlike the Fort Hamer proposal, on which the county has not made a decision, the Tara bridge would not have tolls.

The Neals, through University Park Country Club Associates, also would obtain the necessary permits for the Tara bridge.

Construction would start as soon as those permits come in, possibly as early as May, and would last about 16 months, Pat Neal said.

“We can get it done sooner and for less money” partly because the company, not the county, would solicit bids and manage the project, he said.

That and other issues are causing some initial reservations among commissioners, who have seen only a rough outline of the Neal proposal.

Commissioner Joe McClash said the lack of a public bidding process concerns him, just like it did with the Fort Hamer proposal.

“Anytime you spend the public’s money, you should have a public process,” he said. “At the end of the day, the only way that the public interest is protected is by going through a public process and not dealing exclusively with one developer.”

He and commission Chairwoman Gwendolyn Brown also questioned where the $15.3 million would come from. They noted details of the economic-stimulus package, including what projects would be eligible, have not been worked out yet.

“We don’t have the money to do that project right now,” Brown said.

McClash also said it “would be misleading” to call the Tara bridge project an economic stimulus if it means the county has to take the money from another project.

And bridge opponents likely would challenge any permit, causing more delays, he said.

But Commissioner Donna Hayes said she supports the Neal plan.

“I see this project as just being perfect for the economic stimulus package,” she said. “Now is the time to do it.”

The proposal is the last agenda item at the commission meeting, which starts at 9 a.m. in the first-floor commission chambers in the Manatee County Government Administrative Building, 1112 Manatee Ave. W.

Duane Marsteller, transportation/growth and development reporter, can be reached at 745-7080, ext. 2630.