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Bridge’s future hot topic on Anna Maria Island

MANATEE — There is certainly no shortage of opinions on what the future of the Anna Maria Island drawbridge should be on the island as the state last week recommended a high-level fixed bridge to replace the aging structure.

The Florida Department of Transportation has recommended replacing the drawbridge with a bridge with a 65 foot vertical clearance that would be built south of the existing structure. The estimated cost is $102.5 million.

Island activist groups such as Save Anna Maria have already said they will fight against the proposal tooth and nail, but feelings on the bridge by residents and business owners runs the gamut.

The idea doesn’t sit well with Allyson Gillies, who lives off Marina Drive in Holmes Beach.

“I want it to stay the way it is,” she said. “We have voted to pass all these ordinances to keep the small town feel here, and this bridge idea would defeat the purpose of all of that. So you have to sit in traffic some. It is small price to pay for what we have here.”

FDOT explored replacing the bridge with another drawbridge, as well as a 45 foot vertical clearance, but said building a fixed bridge would cost $20 to $30 million less than building a drawbridge. FDOT officials said it also costs $9 million-a-year to operate and maintain a drawbridge.

Officials with FDOT also said surveys conducted of island residents showed 83 percent favored replacing the bridge, and 77 percent favored the fixed bridge recommended by FDOT.

Holmes Beach resident Philip Gale said he is all for FDOT’s proposal, saying pulling in tourism dollars is the name of the game for the island.

“Why frustrate everybody that comes here with this traffic. The money is in the tourism so we should do everything we can to make it easy on them,” said Gale. “This place is growing and you can’t stop it.”

Restaurant owner Bill Staley says he is torn over the bridge controversy. The owner of Feeling Swell Cafe said he fears losing the “old Florida” feel Anna Maria offers, but a new bridge might mean more business.

“I have mixed feelings about it,” said Staley. “Part of me likes it when I pull up to the bridge and there is a little traffic. It makes me take a second to relax and say, all right, I am coming into Anna Maria so it is time to enjoy myself.”

It doesn’t appear that relaxing is what activists are planning when it comes to the bridge. A fight may be in the future reminiscent of the one FDOT had more than 10 years ago when the agency recommended a fixed bridge. Lawsuits were filed and residents decried lack of input which caused FDOT officials to scrap the plan.

“There’s a fight ahead. We’re definitely getting ready to fight again,” Save Anna Maria president Ursula Stemm told the Bradenton Herald last week.