Fort Hamer bridge project snarled in federal red tape

MANATEE -- After being in the works for more than a decade, the jury is still out on whether a bridge will ever be built at Fort Hamer.

This week, County Administrator Ed Hunzeker provided a tentative timetable to Manatee County commissioners that forecast submission of 100 percent of plans in early 2013.

What remains between now and 2013 is the completion of an environmental impact statement, public hearings, restart of the design phase and submission and comment on those plans.

The key hurdle is the environmental impact statement that could either allow the bridge at Fort Hamer, or scuttle those plans in favor of an alternative location.

Jim Seuffert, director of the county’s financial management department, and Ron Schulhofer, county public works director, said in July 2010 they were confident that a bridge would be built at Fort Hamer.

This past Wednesday, Schulhofer was hedging his bets, both on the proposed timetable and the outcome of the Coast Guard study.

“It’s way too early to say,” he said.

County Commissioner Larry Bustle of Palmetto said Wednesday he supports building a bridge at Fort Hamer.

“It’s really needed for the north-south mobility in Manatee County. It will take some of the load off I-75,” Bustle said.

Commissioner Robin DiSabatino, who was elected to the county commission after the county abandoned pursuit of federal dollars to build the bridge, said she sees both sides of the issue.

She said she understands the opposition to the bridge by Waterlefe residents and other neighbors in the immediate area, but she also appreciates the benefits of a new corridor.

A bridge at Fort Hamer would open the flow of traffic between Parrish and Lakewood Ranch, she said, but adding that she preferred to reserve judgment until she sees the results of the pending study.

County Commission Chair Carol Whitmore said she has never voted for the Fort Hamer bridge because she doesn’t support using county funds.

A decade ago, Manatee officials anticipated building a six-lane high-rise bridge at Fort Hamer.

Those plans were scaled back after the county abandoned a prolonged and never-completed federal environmental impact study on the Fort Hamer location.

The favorable environmental impact statement would have been required to win federal funding. County commissioners decided they could get the bridge built faster by funding its construction locally, rather than waiting on federal funding.

County officials decided to build a bridge that was 2,200 feet long, two-lanes wide and would rise just 27 feet above the mean high water mark.

The county got as far as approving an agreement with URS Corporation Southern to design the bridge for $2.9 million before the Coast Guard required Manatee County to expand the environmental impact study to include the Rye Road alternative, as well as the Fort Hamer location.

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James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee editor, can be contacted at 941-745-7021.

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