“I always believed it would get built,” said Mark Simat, 17, who joined elected officials to break ground Thursday for the $32.7 million Fort Hamer Bridge in Parrish. “It was matter of when, not if.”
Construction is expected to take two years before the two-lane 2,318-foot long span above the Manatee River connects Fort Hamer and Upper Manatee River roads. A north-south option to I-75 will be a vital traffic link, especially in emergencies, county officials said.
For Simat, a senior at Lakewood Ranch High, “It was about urgency. My mom had a heart condition and she had to get picked up in an ambulance and go to Lakewood Ranch Medical Center. I think the trip would’ve been half the time if the bridge was here. Instead you had to go all the way around.”
Simat was at Nolan Middle School in 2010 when he chose the wishful history of a troubled bridge for a class project. He started digging in libraries and learned what no one seemed to know: a Fort Hamer Bridge was authorized by the county in 1909 for $250,000.
“Public opposition was fierce at the time -- and for many of the reasons we see today,” county spokesman Nicholas Azzara said. “For the decision-makers, at the end of the day it came down to a public safety issue.”
A new bridge in eastern Manatee was on and off the table for decades, Azzara said. It was part of the county's comprehensive plan in 1968. A proposal was revived in 1998 and dropped in 2002 following protests by neighbors and conservation groups. In 2009 county leaders restarted the project after a tanker truck crashed, exploded, and destroyed an I-75 overpass in Ellenton, causing days of gridlock.
The bridge and road projects involve 19.4 acres of open land, 6.8 acres of forest and 5.51 acres of wetlands and fish habitat, according to an Environmental Impact Statement by the U.S. Coast Guard. The area provides habitat for a variety of rare wildlife, including Wood stork, manatee, smalltooth sawfish, gopher tortoise, pine snake and the Florida mouse.
Simat was a regular at many commission meetings. He built a file and his case for the bridge. And his sustained energy and interest, commissioner Larry Bustle said, helped nudge the project across the finish line.
Hasta la vista