Two bridge projects on barrier islands

Repairs to Longboat Pass and FDOT options to replace Cortez bridge

Longboat Pass bridge
Repairs of Longboat Pass Bridge - Crews work on the Longboat Pass bridge on the north end

The north end of the barrier islands, Longboat Key and Anna Maria Island, have been the subject of construction projects with plans for the future. Two projects are in the works, the Florida Department of Transportation has started work on the Longboat Pass bridge and is reviewing plans to alleviate congestion with new designs for the Cortez bridge.

The $5.2 million of repairs to the Longboat Pass bridge will add 10 more years of life to the 60-year-old bridge. Although considered safe to cross, the extended life will give FDOT time to research the best course of action for the future of the bridge. The Longboat Pass connects Longboat Key to the south end of Bradenton Beach where Coquina Beach is located. The drawbridge also connects the intracoastal waterway to the Gulf of Mexico for boaters.

Drivers and boaters have seen little impact to their commutes. There have been minimal lane closures during the day as most work continues during the nighttime hours between 9 PM and 6 AM. There is no work scheduled on weekends. The walkways for pedestrians will be impacted by closures. Procedures are in place to ensure emergency vehicles can cross in a timely manner.

Construction will affect boat traffic, mainly sail boaters with masts to exceed 17 feet that require the drawbridge to be raised as a passage to the Gulf. Before the work boaters could request an opening 24 hours a day. During construction the bridge operator will honor requests at 10 AM, 2 PM and 6 PM, with a 30-minute window at each of the three times. Boaters can hail the operator with one long and one short blast on the horn. They also monitor VHF channel 9 for requests.

Alternatives for boaters are to the north through the Cortez and Manatee drawbridges or to the south through New Pass bridge or the open waters of Big Sarasota Pass. Recent dredging projects have made these waterways more accessible to boaters with deep drafts. Still, caution should be exercised.

Repairs include the drawbridge grid deck, concrete road deck, reinforcement of steel beams, railings, underwater erosion protection, fender repairs, and mechanical and electrical systems. Longboat Key was dismissed from a lawsuit last year when the bridge was damaged by a contractor replacing a water pipe under the bridge in 2014.

FDOT Cortez Bridge simulation
FDOT posted a simulation of the proposed fixed-bridge

Over the last decade FDOT has reviewed changes to the bridge that crosses over from Cortez to Bradenton Beach. The two-lane drawbridge has been a nuisance to visitors attempting to cross the bridge as the volume mounts in peak season and the bridge has a liberal open rate for boaters. Three major repairs to the bridge since 1996 have been costly and future repairs will drive up costs even more. The last repair in 2015 extended the life of the 63-year-old bridge another 10 years.

FDOT presented two options in August 2017. The first is a replacement drawbridge that extended the closed height clearance from 17.5 feet to 35 feet. The second option presented is to have a fixed Ringling Bridge style with a 65-foot clearance. The department has announced it will make its final presentation and propose one of the solutions, possibly as soon as this month.

The most feasible is the fixed-bridge option, as revealed by those close to the project. A simulation was released that includes two lanes with a 10-foot wide pedestrian and bicycle crossing. The bridge will require a higher elevation at the beginning and touchdown points on both sides of the bridge. The projected cost is $75 million, and FDOT suggests it will save money over time by reducing maintenance and bridge tender labor costs.

The beginning and end points have residents concerned. Cortez home owners contend that the higher elevation will split the town in half. Cortez is a historic fishing village that flourished for many years before gill netting was banned in 1994. The village continues with seafood restaurants, some commercial fishing and is home to the Florida Maritime Museum.

On the other end in Bradenton Beach businesses with hotels say the elevated bridge will block the view that many of their patrons enjoy. The increased volume of traffic will also increase congestion at the Gulf Drive intersection, the two-lane north and south main road on Bradenton Beach that is controlled through a single traffic light. A roundabout at the intersection has been in discussion outside of the bridge project.

In 2017 the U.S. Coast guard reduced the bridge openings from three times an hour to twice an hour, at 15 minutes and 45 minutes after the hour between 6 AM and 7 PM. Bridge tenders can be hailed in the same manner of horn blasts and Channel 9 transmissions.

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