On Tuesday, the Manatee County commissioners will make one of their most important public policy decisions. Should the county allow Pat Neal, a private developer, and his company to have ownership of the Fort Hamer Regional Bridge property?
Neal wants the county to sign an agreement to exchange the bridge property for a small parcel needed for a future Port Manatee connector road near Piney Point that he claims to have an interest in. He also plans to put in place tolls for the users to pay for building the Fort Hamer Bridge and provide profits to his development company.
No bids, no hearing
Neal has been lobbying county commissioners to persuade us to exchange the property, so he can avoid publicly bidding the bridge by owning the public right of way. He is relying on Florida Statute 125.37: Exchange of county property. That law allows exchanges if, in the opinion of the County Commission, the property "is not needed for county purposes." There would be no public hearing, no competition, no facts required to determine that the granting of the taxpayers' property to a private developer is based on anything but an opinion.
This is another example of Neal flexing his political muscle to benefit his interest, not the county's.
How can he honestly state that the property has no public purpose? It has been designated by regional and county transportation plans, and has been a project of record needed for a transportation corridor since the 1960s. Neal's assertion is just not true.
Interstate 75 is now operating in violation of the county's adopted level of service. Without the Fort Hamer Bridge, more traffic will be added to a failing road. This is in violation of our transportation goals. Our comprehensive plan also supports a parallel road to accommodate growth.
Any agreement with Neal that stated that there is no public purpose for the land would violate all the public documents supporting the public purpose for the Fort Hamer Bridge. How could he get a permit if there is no public purpose? For bridges, the U.S. Coast Guard must provide a basis of public purpose to our state Department of Environmental Protection.
Taxpayers paid millions
The taxpayers paid millions to ensure that we would have a connection to cross the Manatee River east of the interstate. The commission consistently stated that we need this bridge not only for traffic circulation but for emergencies that could close the interstate.
A number of studies have determined that the bridge serves a public purpose and that it is needed by the county. The county has sent letters, taken official action and spent millions doing environmental studies and evaluating this very important transportation corridor.
And now it comes down to an opinion pushed by a developer. I cannot see how anyone can agree with Neal that the real property, owned by the taxpayers, is not needed for county purposes. The statute section he references is used when roads are realigned and it can honestly be opined that real property is not needed for county purposes. In those cases, the road is still there, just shifted, and the public's property has been protected. That is not the case in this situation.
I am glad the county attorney and the county administrator will recommend against what is essentially giving away a public corridor to a developer for private gain.
Federal funds at risk
The exchange, if approved, will jeopardize $100 million to $200 million of federal money that commissioners have requested for the port connector road. A restriction imposed by federal rules prohibits a county from designating an alignment for a federal road until the Environmental Impact Study has been completed. The study will not be done for at least a year.
Why risk so much to benefit a developer?
I will be voting against giving Neal the property. I suggest we take almost $30 million in accumulated impact fees and build the bridge ourselves without a toll. Building the bridge ourselves and keeping it owned by the public would be in the best interest of the county taxpayers and provide the public purpose for this property.
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