FDOT is working to better inform residents before testings take place, but town officials push for repairs to be done off-season.
As motorists on Longboat Key stood still in miles-long traffic heading south on Gulf of Mexico Drive on Tuesday, town staff began fielding complaints.
According to an email sent by Town Manager Dave Bullock to a Florida Department of Transportation official on Thursday, more than 30 residents called or walked into Town Hall to voice their frustrations about the traffic, which was caused by work on the New Pass Bridge that included drawbridge testings in the afternoon.
“People are incensed that the decision to work on the bridge and conduct multiple openings during our very peak traffic weeks was made,” Bullock wrote. “The month of March is absolute peak season. This is not new information.”
Not only was traffic heavy on GMD on Tuesday because of the time of year. It was also election day.
The improvements being made to the bridge include replacing controls, which requires significant electronic and hydraulic adjustments. Bullock questioned why such extensive work could not be scheduled during the offseason.
“There are at least eight months of non-peak season that are available for repairs,” Bullock wrote.
When Mayor Terry Gans received an email from a resident concerned by the traffic, he was able to empathize from experience, as he had found himself stuck in Tuesday’s jams going to and from the Key, sitting for 15 to 20 minutes at a time.
Though he wished he had a better answer for the resident, Gans could not explain how the decision was made to conduct the testings during such a high-volume period.
“To our thinking, the ‘perfect storm’ was unnecessary as FDOT had committed to us that bridge openings as part of the repair work would be limited to evening hours or absolute necessity,” Gans wrote. “Either the word did not get to the onsite contractors, or there have been a record-breaking number of absolute necessities.”
In a statement on Friday, FDOT Community Outreach Manager Lauren Hatchell said FDOT is making efforts to keep the public better notified about testings of the New Pass Bridge.
Hatchell said testing is scheduled to resume within the next two weeks, and FDOT has requested the bridge inspector notify the department as to the specific dates of the testing so that Key residents can be informed beforehand.
In addition to the necessary tests, the improvements to the bridge require it to be opened four times a day for a period of about two months. Hatchell said these additional openings can include regular maritime traffic, noting that two of the required openings on Thursday were fulfilled by vessels passing through.
The drawbridge over New Pass opens for vessels on an on-demand basis and does not have a set schedule.
Hatchell also said efforts will continue to be made to coordinate bridge openings with the signal at Ken Thompson Parkway.
Robin Stublen, a spokesman for FDOT, echoed Hatchell in affirming that the department will improve efforts to keep the public informed.
Stublen noted that, if all such construction was limited to the offseason, FDOT would not have enough labor to complete its projects. He added that the required drawbridge testing cannot be performed at night because of concerns regarding safety and noise, referring to the horn that blares during bridge openings.
If the tests can only take place during daylight hours, Bullock has requested FDOT schedule testings early in the morning or in the evening to avoid traffic backups like those experienced on Tuesday.
The current work on the New Pass Bridge will be completed this spring, Stublen said.