The U.S. Coast Guard will soon explore changing the amount of times Siesta Key and Anna Maria Island bridges open. But they won't do the same for the Longboat Pass Bridge, despite a a request from the Sarasota-Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization.
“While the Coast Guard agrees that both vehicular and vessel traffic in this area has grown our primary concern encompasses safety of all modes of transportation,” wrote Coast Guard Director of Bridge Administration Barry Dragon in a May 19 memo to MPO Executive Director David Hutchinson. “Due to the limited safe vessel holding areas and shoals in the area, the Coast Guard is unable to approve a change to this bridge schedule, as this could lead to multiple vessel accidents and bridge (collisions).”
There is more room for boats to wait safely around the Siesta and Anna Maria bridges, which allows for more flexibility in changing timings.
The issue of bridge openings and whether they add to traffic troubles is a topic of frequent discussion on the Key, according to Coast Guard Bridge Management Specialist Michael Lieberum.
Longboat Key Mayor Jack Duncan said that he doesn’t think the bridge is a major factor affecting barrier island traffic, but he was disappointed with the Coast Guard’s decision.
“Frankly, I find it to be a huge exaggeration," Duncan said, referring to the Coast Guard's statements. “I have never seen such a massive boat stack there that they can’t find a place to sit there and wait for the bridge.”
The MPO requested the Coast Guard consider reducing the number of bridge openings at Longboat Pass and elsewhere to two times per hour throughout the year in hopes of easing traffic woes.
Last year, Key resident and retired U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Steve Branham studied bridge opening at the request of Town Commissioner Lynn Larson and Town Manager Dave Bullock. At the time, he determined neither bridge contributed to traffic issues.
“One of the things we’ve learned is although they are an annoyance, they aren’t specifically a factor in season,” Duncan said.
For the New Pass Bridge at the south end of the Key, the bridge must open every 20 minutes when boats are present, up to three times an hour between the hours of 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. Between 6 p.m. and 7 a.m., the bridge must open on signal with at least three hours’ notice.
At the north end, the Longboat Pass Bridge opens on demand for boaters. And the Cortez Bridge, which connects Bradenton Beach to mainland Manatee County, opens on demand every 20 minutes between May 16 and Jan. 14, and every 30 minutes on demand from Jan. 15 through May 15, which many say contributes to gridlock at the north end.
Lieberum said it could take anywhere from eight months to more than a year for the agency to change the opening schedule for the Siesta and Anna Maria bridges. The agency will consider the change after allowing for public comment.
“Yes, there is a lot of vehicle traffic all throughout the Sarasota area,” Lieberum said. “I don’t know how much of an effect bridge openings have on the traffic, however, the bridges do have to open sometimes to let the boats through.”