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East County Wednesday, Jul. 21, 2010 7 years ago

Waterlefe drives bridge fight

by: Pam Eubanks Senior Editor

WATERLEFE — Waterlefe resident Don McFadden glances at a map showing plans for the proposed Fort Hamer Bridge over the Manatee River. Then, he scans the horizon, pointing across the river to where the bridge will go.

“It’s crossing the widest part of the river,” McFadden said. “Rye Bridge is three miles to the east. It accomplishes the same thing.”

He and other Waterlefe residents oppose the construction of the Fort Hamer Bridge, currently in a data collection and engineering stage.

The Waterlefe Master Property Owners’ Association on June 28 adopted a resolution opposing the allocation of public funds for the project as well as permitting and construction of the bridge. The homeowners group will plead its case before Manatee County commissioners on July 27.

Residents say the bridge project will create significant increases in traffic on Upper Manatee River Road along Waterlefe’s eastern boundary, and will create safety hazards both for residents trying to use the community’s back entrance and for drivers whose vehicles may be hit by stray golf balls.

The project also would adversely affect the aesthetics of the area and would be visible along the entire length of the 15th hole of Waterlefe’s golf course, among other concerns.

“This is a community that’s built out,” resident and Waterlefe community development district supervisor Ken Bumgarner said. “It just does not make sense.”

Resident Tom Davidson agreed.

“We think it’s the bridge to nowhere,” he said. “We think the Rye Road Bridge is a much better alternative, and it’s a lot less expensive.”

The roughly $7.8 million Rye Road Bridge was completed in December 2007. As proposed, the Fort Hamer Bridge would cross the Manatee River just northeast of the Waterlefe development, serving as a connector from Upper Manatee River Road to the south and Fort Hamer Road to the north. Ultimately, Fort Hamer Road would allow traffic from the bridge to access U.S. 301 and County Road 675. The two-lane bridge would be about 2,200 feet long and have 10-foot shoulder/auxiliary lanes on each side as well as a five-foot sidewalk.

The project is a priority of the Sarasota Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization’s 2030 Long Range Transportation Plan. It has been in the county’s comprehensive plan since the late 1960s. Manatee commissioners approved a four-lane configuration of the Fort Hamer Bridge in 2003.

However, federal and state agencies began investigating the proposal because of lingering opposition based on environmental and traffic safety. The Federal Highway Administration then began preparing an Environmental Impact Study, soliciting input from organizations such as the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Coast Guard.

In December 2007, Manatee commissioners sent a letter requesting a stop of the environmental impact study because it still had not been completed.

Bridge proponents say the need for more north-south corridors over the Manatee River trumps Waterlefe residents’ pleas for preserving their community. A tanker explosion on Interstate 75 in June 2008 snarled traffic until an overpass could be rebuilt.

East County resident Jonathan Bruce, a commissioner at the time the bridge was approved, said the explosion emphasized Manatee’s need for more major north-south connectors.

“These are difficult decisions,” Bruce said. “We cannot be short-sighted in terms of connectivity of our road system in Manatee County. One only has to look back at hurricane threats and the incident that shut down the interstate (to see that).”

But residents such as McFadden and Davidson disagree, adding that widening the Rye Road Bridge would create more connections for drivers and would be a less expensive alternative.

Bumgarner said the community is prepared to ask for mitigation for issues such as noise, lighting and aesthetics if the WMPO’s position isn’t received favorably.

“If we can’t defeat this thing, these are things we will go to the county and ask for mitigation (for),” Bumgarner said.

Contact Pam Eubanks at [email protected].

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