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East County Wednesday, Sep. 14, 2022 1 week ago

US transportation committee member gets overview of Manatee roadways

Manatee County officials hope U.S. Rep. Sam Graves, who is on the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, sees the need for federal funds to expand Fort Hamer Bridge.
by: Ian Swaby Staff Writer

Manatee County officials wanted to rise to greater heights when it came to obtaining federal funding for a second span of the Fort Hamer Bridge.

So they went to the Manatee County Sheriff's Office to borrow a helicopter.

After convincing U.S. Rep. Sam Graves (R-Missouri) to visit the area Aug. 29, they loaded up the helicopter and took a tour of Manatee County's roadways.

Graves is the ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, placing him in an important leadership role. Jack Ruddy, the staff director of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, accompanied Graves on the trip to Manatee County.

Also in the helicopter was Manatee County Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge, who acted as a tour guide, explaining why the Fort Hamer Bridge expansion is so important to the area.

Van Ostenbridge said Graves didn't tip his hand during the tour whether he would support Manatee County's effort to get federal funding, but he did write to the county afterward that it was "extremely helpful to discuss and see firsthand the infrastructure needs of folks across the country."

In May, Manatee County commissioners visited Washington, D.C., to network with congressmen on the possibility of obtaining funds. They met with Florida Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, and Florida Rep. Verne Buchanan, among others.

Besides the Fort Hamer Bridge expansion, Manatee County needs to widen the roads leading to the bridge. 

“It’s very expensive, but we need it desperately," District 5 Commissioner Vanessa Baugh said of the bridge expansion in May.

Rep. Sam Graves and Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge met at SeaPort Manatee prior to the flight. (Courtesy photo)

Commissioner George Kruse said in May the bridge would open an important evacuation route, in an area where limited options are available for vehicles to cross the river.

After subsequent meetings with Graves, Van Ostenbridge was able to convince him to visit Manatee County in late August.

Following his arrival, Graves met at SeaPort Manatee with Van Ostenbridge, Kruse, and District 1 Commissioner James Satcher. Also in attendance were Ruddy; L.K. Nandam, the district secretary at the Florida Department of Transportation; and Carlos Buqueras, executive director of SeaPortManatee.

Van Ostenbridge said the group explained to Graves the different segments of Manatee County including “the bedroom community of Parrish, the master-planned community of Lakewood Ranch, and the city center between the population out east, and the beach.

After about two hours, Van Ostenbridge, Graves, and Ruddy boarded the Sheriff’s Office helicopter for an overview of the county, at the 5 p.m. rush hour.

“What surprised me was the visual of urban sprawl,” Van Ostenbridge said. “It’s quite a sight to see so many rooftops, and then the blank pads, and then the farmland beyond it.”

He said the trip also took the group over all notable county road projects, such as the 44th Avenue extension, the future connection of the two segments of Lena Road, and the widening of Lorraine Road.

Van Ostenbridge called the flight over Fort Hamer Bridge the “most important aspect of the trip” due to the commissioner’s efforts to procure the funds.

One of the key takeaways of the meeting for Van Ostenbridge was that funding is not as lengthy a process as he had initially believed.

“It's not a fast process, but it's not funding that's going to take 10 or 15 years to get," he said. 

The county is seeking $160 million. 

The helicopter also flew over the Lakewood Ranch area.

“He was very interested in the master-planned aspect of Lakewood Ranch,” Van Ostenbridge said of Graves, who noted that Lakewood Ranch didn't have similar traffic problems as other spots in the county.

The group also flew over the diverging diamond interchange at University Parkway and I-75.

“(Graves) was very proud of seeing the diamond working and flowing so well, and I was quick to point out this is another example of if we build it properly, it flows and it works,” Van Ostenbridge said.

From the interchange, the group sighted bumper-to-bumper traffic northbound along Interstate 75, from University Parkway to Ellenton.

“In the end, he did see the all the traffic jams we wanted him to see,” Van Ostenbridge said.

Commissioner George Kruse said Graves' visit was an important step in the pursuit of several county projects.

“You can sit there all day long at a table or at somebody's office and explain our needs to somebody in Washington, D.C., or Tallahassee,” Kruse said. “It's a whole different thing when you convince them to come down and visualize it."

Kruse said as the commission moves forward, it will be meeting again with Graves during its annual trip to Washington, D.C. in what will likely be spring 2023, by which point Kruse hopes to have funding requests submitted.

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