BRADENTON - The Fort Hamer Bridge's 100-year march toward reality came a little closer to its destination on Tuesday.
The Manatee County Commission approved 6-1 a motion to have the Public Works Department come back in three months with criteria for a two-lane bridge to be designed and built through a request for proposal. County staff said the bridge can be built for $28.4 million.
The money is from money saved from other projects.
Commissioner Donna Hayes expressed her support for a bridge over the Manatee River at Fort Hamer. However, she said, "I really question whether we can do it for $28 million."
County Public Works Director Ron Schulhofer said the bridge could be built for less than the $130 million that is estimated for the toll bridge that was proposed, because fewer lanes are planned (two instead of six), costs for construction materials are lower and because competition by bidders will lower the price.
The bridge is definitely needed, Hayes pointed out. "We should have learned something from the bridge explosion at the I-75 bridge," she said, referring to the accident involving a fuel tanker that closed the bridge over U.S. 301 in Ellenton and created traffic havoc in Bradenton, Palmetto and in eastern Manatee County as north- and southbound vehicles tried to take narrow detours around the accident site.
"We need a bridge for diversity in our roadway system," said Commissioner Ron Getman. "This bridge is sorely needed for north- and southbound traffic."
He also referred to the accident on I-75, saying the county could have been gridlocked because of the lack of north-south routes. The new route could also serve for hurricane evacuation, and keep people from using I-75 when they could use roads further east to go north or south.
Commissioner Carol Whitmore said she saw no reason to build the bridge.
"I would rather use that $28 million for something we need in the county," she said. "It's going to be more than $28 million. We know that."
But Commissioner Joe McClash noted that the money came from impact fees and can only be used for transportation.
"My goal is to just build the two lanes," he said. "Today, you just need a connector across the river."
In his presentation to the commissioners, developer Pat Neal described the history of the bridge plan, which dates back to 1909. It was stopped by a lawsuit then, he said.
In 1968, it was put on the major thoroughfare plan, and listed as a project in 1999. In 2001, a Project Development and Environment study put the cost for the bridge at $57.6 million. That number grew in the 2008 PD&E study to $127.4 million. The Metropolitan Planning Organization put the cost for a six-lane road from State Road 64 to Old Tampa Road and a four-lane bridge from Old Tampa Road to U.S. 301 at $139 million.
Neal said the bridge could be built in a private-public partnership, an idea McClash was opposed to.
Schulhofer said the scaled-down version of the bridge - two lanes instead of six - would accommodate East Manatee traffic for several years until the bridge needs to be widened to four lanes. In addition, the bridge could cut ambulance response time north of the river and cut by seven minutes the time needed to get from North Manatee to Manatee Memorial Hospital or Lakewood Ranch Medical Center.
Anyone could bid on the county's request for proposal, including Pat Neal.
Getman said the key is to have the bridge over the Manatee River at Fort Hamer.
"I don't care who builds the bridge," he said.
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