ANNA MARIA ISLAND — The public will get another say this month on whether the aging Anna Maria Island Bridge should be rehabilitated again or replaced by a similar drawbridge, a higher drawbridge or an even-higher fixed span.
But residents won’t learn which option the Florida Department of Transportation recommends until after the March 26 public hearing, a move that some island residents fear is designed to stifle opposition.
In a departure from its normal process for studying a proposed project’s potential impacts, FDOT said it will not offer a recommendation for public review at the hearing. Instead, the agency said it will use public comments from the meeting in making a decision later.
“We’re going to present all the alternatives again so we can provide one more opportunity for the public to voice their opinions about all the alternatives, not just one,” FDOT spokeswoman Cindy Clemmons-Adente said.
FDOT is studying four potential futures for the 52-year-old drawbridge that carries State Road 64/Manatee Avenue traffic over Anna Maria Sound:
n Rehabbing the bridge again, which would cost an estimated $72.8 million, require a 140-day closure and extend the bridge’s lifespan by 25 years.
n Building a similar low-level drawbridge, with a 21-foot vertical clearance, for nearly $127 million.
n Building a mid-level drawbridge, with a vertical clearance of 45 feet, for an estimated $137 million.
n Building a high-level fixed span, with a 65-foot vertical clearance, for about $102 million.
There’s no timetable for making a decision, said Stan Cann, secretary of the FDOT district that includes Manatee County.
But FDOT intends to present its recommendation — officially called a preferred alternative — to county commissioners before sending it to the U.S. Coast Guard for approval, he said. The public will have a chance to opine on FDOT’s pick during that meeting, Cann said.
“I think it opens the process even more,” he said. “It’s a very public issue, and we want to open it to the public as much as possible.”
But some islanders are suspicious, wondering if FDOT is hoping to silence critics after it makes its choice — especially if it is the highest bridge.
“It feels like they’re trying to get something done the back way instead of doing it out in the open,” said Ursula Stemm, president of Save Anna Maria Inc., a grassroots organization that has led the opposition against a fixed bridge.
That skepticism stems from past dealings with FDOT over the bridge.
In the mid-1990s, FDOT decided that a high, fixed bridge — one that does not open to boat traffic — would replace the existing drawbridge. But FDOT made that decision after holding fewer public meetings than required and not adequately notifying island residents of them, prompting heavy, well-organized opposition that ultimately forced FDOT to scrap that plan.
FDOT officials said they’ve taken greater pains this time to include the public, and that it still can influence their decision on the bridge’s future.
“We realize the history and significance of this project for the community, so we want to make sure we afford the public every opportunity to have its voice heard,” Clemmons-Adente said. “It’s not that we’re having a hard time making a decision, but we realize that decision has a lot to do with what the public says.”
Even after that decision is made, the public still will have plenty of chances to be heard, she said.
A Coast Guard official who will be among those reviewing FDOT’s recommendation agreed.
“There’s more opportunity than there ever was,” said Randall Overton, a federal permitting agent and bridge management specialist in the Coast Guard’s Miami office. “I really think they don’t have enough information yet to make a decision. If they were going in with a preferred alternative, it means they’ve already made a decision.”
Overton said the Coast Guard will actively solicit and accept public comment after it gets FDOT’s study. The federal agency also will review public comments FDOT received by mail, e-mail and at various public meetings, he said.
“I know they (FDOT) had some procedural errors the last time, so I want to make sure they do it right this time,” Overton said.
So does Billie Martini, a longtime islander and Save Anna Maria member.
“I hope it’s not like the old days, when our opinions didn’t matter,” she said. “I’ve been concerned about what FDOT does for many years, so I’m keeping my eye on them.”