A new drawbridge plan on Siesta Key reduces the number of openings, but residents say it’s critical to stay on schedule.
When Lana Volpe leaves her home on Siesta Key, there’s an element of planning that goes along with it.
For her, timing is everything. She knows if she has an appointment off the Key, she has to allow enough time to potentially wait for either the Stickney Point Bridge or the Siesta Bridge to go up, let boats pass through, and go back down.
“A big annoyance is when the bridge opens not exactly when it’s supposed to, because five minutes, believe it or not, makes a big difference,” she said.
She and other Siesta Key residents have learned to adjust their travel plans accordingly, thanks to the fact that the bridge opens on a tight schedule between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m. In October, the regulations were changed from opening every 20 minutes, to opening every 30 minutes — on the hour and half-hour.
But what if the bridge doesn’t open when it’s supposed to? What if you’ve done all your planning, and it opens outside the hour or half-hour marks?
It’s something Volpe’s husband, Joe, has reached out to the Coast Guard about in the past.
“It’s opening less frequently so it should help us,” Joe Volpe said. “But when the bridge master opens it before the exact time it screws things up.”
He cites a number of problems with waiting for the bridge to open and close for boats, including traffic.
“It’s a big nuisance, it’s a safety item, it’s wasting all kinds of fuel being burnt by all the vehicles, it’s polluting the air,” he said.
Volpe said he’s seen the bridge open off-schedule for things that aren’t necessary, like a boat that could have lowered antennas but didn’t. Boats less than 26 feet in height can usually pass under the bridge, depending on the tide.
The bridges are operated by the Florida Department of Transportation, but governed by the U.S. Coast Guard. Neither agency has received any complaints about the bridges opening off schedule or unnecessarily since the shift in the schedule.
A Coast Guard spokesperson said bridges can open off-schedule for maintenance purposes, government vessels, when vessels are in distress or vessels are towing another vessel.
In November, according to records from the Florida Department of Transportation, the Stickney Point Bridge was opened 196 times — only four of which were off schedule. Three of those four times were to let a work barge or a boat towing another one through. The other instance was just one minute late.
The Siesta Bridge was opened 186 times in November, 15 of which were off schedule. Three of those times were to allow a work barge or a vessel towing another through. And the remaining 12 times, the bridge opened off schedule by one to 17 minutes.
“If you think ahead a little bit you can do it,” said Siesta Key resident Dave Thomas about planning around the bridge openings. “I never really paid attention to it that much.”
However, Thomas said he knows traffic to the Key is an issue, and thinks the schedule change was a good move.
“I think that our biggest problem is the major flow of traffic on the roads to and from the Key, especially during season, and I think adjusting the bridge times is … a small way of dealing with some of that volume to keep it flowing as smoothly as possible,” he said.
Boaters, on the other hand, have some issues with the new schedule.
Sarasota resident and boater Kelly Devine said it would be better for boaters if the Stickney Point Bridge and Siesta Bridge openings were staggered. So if the Stickney Point Bridge opened at 1 and 1:30 p.m., the Siesta Bridge would open at 1:15 and 1:45 p.m.
This, he said, would help with the starting and stopping that boaters have to do on the current schedule, which can be difficult on the water.
“I think all the boaters recognize the importance of bridge traffic,” Devine said.
On average, both bridges to Siesta Key open six to seven times a day, for about five minutes, and let one to two boats through each time.