State picks high AMI bridge; foes vow fight

ANNA MARIA ISLAND — Another bridge battle is brewing.

As expected, the Florida Department of Transportation has made it official: It wants to replace the aging, low-level Anna Maria Island drawbridge with a high-level fixed span. And just as expected, opponents are vowing to fight what they call a “megabridge” that will jeopardize drivers’ safety in strong winds and ruin the island’s character.

The stage for the latest bridge battle was set July 28, when FDOT submitted its high-bridge recommendation to the U.S. Coast Guard. The Coast Guard must review and approve the state’s choice because the bridge, which carries State Road 64 traffic between Anna Maria and Perico islands, crosses the Intracoastal Waterway.

FDOT’s pick is an estimated $102.5 million span with 65 feet of vertical clearance beneath its highest point, or 48 feet higher than the current bridge. The new bridge also would have a pair of 12-foot-wide travel lanes flanked by, in order: 10-foot-wide shoulders, concrete barrier walls and 10-foot-wide sidewalks.

The new bridge would be built just south of the existing one, which would be demolished.

“This was the most popular decision from the public perspective and the right fit from an engineering and environmental perspective,” FDOT spokeswoman Cindy Clemmons-Adente said Tuesday, noting several public meetings and opinion surveys were held during the 1 1/2-year study that led to the bridge recommendation.

FDOT has no money set aside for the new bridge, but Manatee County commissioners hope the federal government will pay $80 million of the cost. Construction isn’t expected to begin for at least five years.

But opponents, hoping to derail the project a second time, again are questioning the high bridge’s potential environmental impacts. According to FDOT’s study, the high bridge would impact 1.11 acres of wetlands and 1.51 acres of seagrass beds.

“We have very fragile seagrass beds,” said Ursula Stemm, president of Save Anna Maria, a grassroots organization that led the battle against the high bridge a decade ago.

Stemm said SAM and several environmental groups have been talking about joining forces in opposing the high bridge, but haven’t decided whether that will mean a legal challenge.

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