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Bridge Renovation Divides Manatee County

The Cortez Bridge is a drawbridge that connects citizens to Anna Marie Island
Questions about reapiring or replacing the Cortez Bridge, which connects to Anna Marie Island, are causing controversy in Manatee County. COURTESY FLORIDA DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION

A fight is underway in Manatee County between some residents and the Florida Department of Transportation over a drawbridge that leads onto Anna Maria Island.

While FDOT officials say a renovation to the Cortez Bridge will ease traffic congestion, residents say it could hurt both their daily activities and a historic site.

As the proposal stands now, the current drawbridge will be replaced by a 65-foot high-level fixed bridge with construction starting in 2026, according to the FDOT.

One opponent of the project is Manatee County Commissioner Carol Whitmore. She has been an Anna Maria Island resident for more than 50 years.

“When they do this, they will literally destroy the character of our over hundred year, working, fishing village of Cortez,” Whitmore said. “They will also require imminent domain on the north side of the road of businesses that have been as long as I can remember.”

Since 1956, the Cortez Bridge has connected the Bradenton area and Anna Maria island, but FDOT officials say it needs an upgrade.

Brian Rick, a spokesperson for the FDOT, says that the rumors that the new bridge will be problematic for the community are just not true.

“I can’t speculate on every specific opposition…bottom line is that we would not put a bridge in place or install any structure that would be detrimental to the entire community or even sections of the community,” Rick said. “What we do is strike a balance between the need to move people and materials, the need for emergencies, the need to have this structure.”

Rick also says, the bridge renovation will help local businesses, not hurt them.

“If you can get people to travel seamlessly across the water from the mainland to the island and back, it won’t be so daunting of a trip,” Rick said. “So you’re going to be encouraging more business in fact.”

Still, the thought that the historic fishing community could be affected makes some Manatee residents think about alternatives to a completely new bridge.

One possible plan is repairing the present drawbridge. But FDOT officials say that kind of repair is not appropriate for many reasons.

According to their study, the new 65-foot high-level fixed bridge will eliminate the congestion and other delays that the existing drawbridge system causes. This new bridge would also be more reliable in emergency situations and evacuations, as it eliminates any mechanical and electrical malfunctions as well as the possibility for human error.

The study also says that the cost to add a new bridge would be approximately $23.8 million less than simply repairing it.

Map of where the Cortez bridge is located
Map of where the Cortez bridge is located COURTESY FLORIDA DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION

Comments received at a public hearing on August 31, 2017, showed 75% of respondents favored the new fixed-bridge alternative and 24% favored the drawbridge repairs, with some survey responses indicating no preference and others with multiple preferences, according to the FDOT offcial statement.

But to Whitmore, this still does not add up. She said that in her earlier days of public service, FDOT would not be building a 65-foot bridge, and there was a third option on the table: a slightly shorter, 45-foot bridge.

“Years ago, when I was on the original commission of (Anna Maria) Island…FDOT at that time said it did not make sense to put a 65-foot option,” Whitmore said.

She now is seeking legislation to help in her fight.

“I’ve contacted our state legislatures and they are very aware of the commitments given to me as an elected official…and I have a (legislator) that is meeting with FDOT this week to ask why they took out a 45-foot option,” Whitmore said.

A digital rendering of the new, proposed 65-foot Cortez Bridge
A digital rendering of the new, proposed 65-foot Cortez Bridge BRIAN RICK, FDOT SPOKESPERSON

Adam Bakst is a WUSF/USF Zimmerman School digital news intern for summer 2019.
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