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Troubled waters over Coon Key bridge construction

As residents express consternation over repairs to the Coon Key Bridge, a dispute has arisen over the timing of the project.

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  • | 6:00 a.m. April 14, 2016
  • Longboat Key
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At the tail end of tourist season, motorists traveling across the John Ringling Causeway are still experiencing significant traffic congestion as a result of a Florida Department of Transportation project to repair the westbound segment of the Coon Key Bridge.

With residents complaining about the backups, city and FDOT officials are asking for patience — and explaining why the construction began this month. Although the state agency says the project was scheduled based on input from local businesses, the leader of a St. Armands merchants group says FDOT is mischaracterizing the feedback she provided.

The origins of the project date back nearly a year. Sarasota City Manager Tom Barwin said FDOT crews discovered critical structural issues with the bridge last summer and sought to begin repairs in September. Given the four-month construction window, FDOT received concern from merchants that the project would extend into the beginning of season, according to FDOT spokesman Robin Stublen.

As a result, the state agency settled on a new start date of April 4 — a change endorsed by the St. Armands Circle Association, Stublen said. This is a major point of contention for St. Armands Circle Association Executive Director Diana Corrigan, who says her brief input on the project is being cited as the impetus for a start date that’s troubled merchants and residents alike.

Stublen informed city officials that during a conversation in May, Corrigan “strongly agreed” April 4 would be the best time to begin the project. Corrigan said she did discuss the project with FDOT Public Information Officer Lauren Hatchell in May, but the conversation was limited to her concerns about a September start date and a recommendation that the project begin “after season.”

Corrigan said she didn’t learn of the start date for the project until March 4. At a March 8 meeting of the St. Armands Business Improvement District meeting, Corrigan expressed her concerns about the timing, asking city staff if it was possible to push the start date back further.

Construction was not delayed for several reasons: the impending start of hurricane season, the need to finish the project in the fiscal year it was budgeted for and the worsening state of the bridge, city and state officials said.

“Any time we’re going to have these projects, we need to sit down and meet.” — Diana Corrigan 

Both Corrigan and Hatchell said there was a miscommunication about what constituted the end of season. FDOT believed that a date after Easter would qualify, but an early Easter had merchants expecting visitors to stay after the holiday. Corrigan recognizes the project, already underway, cannot be stopped. She just wanted Stublen to acknowledge the agency was responsible for beginning the project in April.

“He instead has elected to try to use me as the scapegoat for the chosen project date in an effort (that) I can only assume is to try to take the heat off himself,” Corrigan wrote in an email to city, county and state officials.

Asked to respond to Corrigan’s comments, Stublen said he stood by his previous statement. Stublen said he had not talked to Corrigan directly and that he was not aware of this particular project until last month.

Although Corrigan was concerned about the general lack of communication with local stakeholders — several city officials weren’t aware of the project until earlier this year — FDOT is currently working to address issues where it can. With the project officially underway, both Stublen and Barwin said the relationship between the city and state agency is healthy.

Hatchell said FDOT is evaluating options for alleviating the congestion on John Ringling Boulevard, including extending the green light time on Bird Key Drive and hiring off-duty officers to direct traffic. At Tuesday’s St. Armands BID meeting, attendees said traffic had gotten slightly better since the project began.

Above all, Corrigan said the confusion surrounding the Coon Key Bridge project proved the need for clear, direct dialogue between state and local leaders. As construction continues through July, she hopes this process serves as a cautionary tale.

“Any time we’re going to have these projects, we need to sit down and meet,” Corrigan said. “We have a communication plan in place that we know well in advance, so everybody knows what’s going on and nobody’s taken by surprise.”

And as for the mix-up that led to an early April start time?

“It’s etched in their brain April 30 is the end of season, so they’ll never make that mistake again,” Corrigan said.


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