EAST COUNTY — A long-debated north-south connector across the Manatee River is closer than ever to being constructed.
A final environmental impact statement published online last week recommends Manatee County move forward with the design and construction of the Fort Hamer Bridge.
The URS Corp.’s report, which was overseen by the U.S. Coast Guard and published on its website, says the proposed two-lane Fort Hamer Bridge is the most viable north-south bridge alternative compared to two other options explored: expanding the Rye Road Bridge or doing nothing.
The bridge would connect Fort Hamer Park to Upper Manatee River Road.
Randy Overton, the Coast Guard project manager who oversaw the report, said the final EIS is available for in-person public review at the Manatee County Chamber of Commerce’s Lakewood Ranch office, the Manatee County Central Library and the Rocky Bluff Library.
“It’s a huge milestone, and we’re very excited about that,” said Ron Schulhofer, Manatee County director of public works. “The Fort Hamer Bridge is a vital north-south connector. Everyone who witnessed the I-75 bridge horrific event knew we needed a Fort Hamer Bridge. It’s very good for growth and to have connectivity for public safety.”
Schulhofer is referencing a January crash involving a truck carrying concrete that slowed traffic at University Parkway and Interstate 75 for days.
The Coast Guard had released a draft of the URS Corp.’s environmental impact statement June 25, 2013.
URS’ final draft incorporated public comments gathered from an Aug. 7, 2013 meeting chaired by the Coast Guard.
The Coast Guard had required Manatee County to expand its environmental impact statement to include the Rye Road Bridge and determine whether it could meet the county’s need for a north-south route, after residents from Waterlefe, in July 2010, rallied against the project.
Concerned homeowners there say the bridge will increase traffic on Upper Manatee River Road along Waterlefe’s eastern boundary, and will present safety hazards for residents trying to use the community’s back entrance.
Schulhofer says expanding the EIS has cost the county an additional $500,000.
He expects the delay caused by expanding the study to increase construction costs by $5 million.
The Fort Hamer Bridge project is a priority of the Sarasota Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization’s 2030 Long Range Transportation Plan.
It has been a part of county’s comprehensive plan since 1968.
In its final report, URS says the Fort Hamer Bridge would shorten emergency-response times and be less expensive than expanding the Rye Road Bridge.
URS found that although the Fort Hamer Bridge would increase traffic on Upper Manatee River and Fort Hamer roads, it would produce less noise than the Rye Road alternative.
The final EIS says the Fort Hamer Bridge would have less wetland dredge/fill impacts and more floodplain impacts than the Rye Road alternative, as well.
URS calls those impacts unavoidable and said they would be mitigated in accordance with federal and state permit requirements.
The report — and the collaboration between the county and concerned homeowners to mitigate concerns — seemed to appease homeowners who might be impacted by the bridge.
“The CDD at Waterlefe never opposed the bridge,” said Ken Bumgarner, chairman of the Waterlefe CDD. “We indicated we were interested in working with the county to try to mitigate some of the issues. But if you ask any of our 630 homeowners, they will say they prefer there be no bridge. It’s a simple fact of life that it impacts our community. But it’s going to be built. We have to find a way to reach solutions. I hope the dialogue continues.”
While the Coast Guard is still waiting on a few permits, Overton says he does not expect to hold any more public meetings about the Fort Hamer Bridge.
Overton said the Environmental Protection Agency will also publish the final EIS.
When the EPA does so, after a mandatory 30-day waiting period, the Coast Guard expects to issue its final permit to Manatee County — allowing the construction of the bridge — by mid-June.
URS has completed more than 60% of the design for the bridge.
Schulhofer said preliminary costs show the bridge will cost $23 million to $34 million to construct.
Contact Josh Siegel at email@example.com.