UPDATED 10/17 | For conservation groups, the bridge was about a delicate stretch of wetlands. Neighbors feared for property values. Rocketing residential growth was sinking in and raising safety concerns for Manatee County officials. But for a Parrish student, the bridge was about history, common sense, and his mom.
“I always believed it would get built,” said Mark Simat, who was 17 when he joined elected officials two years ago to break ground for the $32.7 million Fort Hamer Bridge in Parrish. “It was matter of when, not if.”
On Wednesday, the bridge connecting Fort Hamer and Upper Manatee River roads is scheduled to open and the county is ready to celebrate at an 8:30 a.m. public ribbon-cutting ceremony at Fort Hamer Rowing Park, 1605 Fort Hamer Road in Parrish. The bridge will open to north and southbound traffic at about 11 a.m., county officials said.
Construction on the two-lane, 2,318-foot long span above the Manatee River began March 19, 2015. A north-south option to I-75 was considered vital for the area, especially in emergencies, county officials said at the time.
And so did Simat, now a student at Florida State University. His mom has been invited as a special guest, county spokesman Nicholas Azzara said.
“It was about urgency," said Simat, who was a Lakewood Ranch senior when construction began. "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 (below, at groundbreaking) was at Nolan Middle School in 2010 when he chose the history of a wishful bridge for a class project. He started digging for information 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 at the groundbreaking. “For the decision-makers, at the end of the day it came down to a public safety issue.”
The bridge is the first in the county to be built over a major waterway since the Green Bridge between Bradenton and Palmetto was replaced roughly 30 years ago. For the walkers, there's a sidewalk with a view.
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 new bridge and road projects involved 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 county commission meetings. He built a file and his case for the bridge. And his sustained energy and interest, then-commissioner Larry Bustle said, helped nudge the project across the finish line.
Editor's note: The original version of this story appeared March 19, 2015. Photos by The Daily Fray; bridge photo via Manatee County.
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