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Under Lee County's plan, the Big Carlos Pass Bridge will be replaced with a 60-feet-high single-span bridge. A public hearing on Thursday brought out a number of opponents. / Photo by Nathan Mayberg
Lee County Government officials stressed that Thursday’s public hearing at Bay Oaks Recreation Center on the Big Carlos Pass Bridge project would not change the 2018 decision by the commissioners to replace the existing draw bridge and build a 60-feet-high single-span bridge.
That didn’t stop opponents from speaking out against a bridge which will be more than twice the height of the existing 23-feet-high bridge, which was built in 1965. The hearing drew about 50 people.
“It’s going to ruin that whole area,” said Fort Myers Beach resident Joanne Juliano of the plans. “It’s going to destroy that whole water where the dolphins will come in and where the fishermen use that area to fish.” Juliano, who lives at Islands End near the bridge, said the draw bridge was being replaced to benefit a small number of boats.
Currently, boats close to the 23-feet-height of the bridge have to wait for it to open as motorists wait for it to open and close – which is not often.
At Thursday’s public hearing, Fort Myers Beach Ray Murphy spoke out in opposition of the bridge and said alternatives for a small replacement draw bridge should have been kept open.
Murphy said his family once owned the land where Islands End condominiums sits near the bridge, which serves as an entryway between Bonita Springs and Fort Myers Beach.
“I’ve fished those waters since I was a youngster,” he said.
Murphy said the new bridge will “displace fishermen who have fished there for generations. It will no longer be available from 60-feet up in the air. That’s impossible.”
Murphy was the lone member of the Fort Myers Beach Council to speak.
City of Bonita Springs District 2 Councilmember Jesse Purdon said the proposed bridge was a step in the “wrong direction” and called it “a very, very bad idea” ecologically. Purdon expressed concern for the oyster beds that would be disturbed as part of dredging for the project.
Former Bonita Springs Mayor Peter Simmons read his letter from 2018 to the late Lee County Commissioner Lee Kiker on behalf of the previous council in opposition to the bridge plans. Kiker also opposed the fixed-span bridge. Noticeably absent was current Bonita Springs Mayor Rick Steinmeyer. Steinmeyer said on Tuesday that the council had voted to oppose the 60-feet-high bridge.
Lee County Commissioner Ray Sandelli, who took over Kiker’s seat, said he hasn’t made up his mind yet on how he feels about the bridge replacement, saying he understood how some people might be impatient waiting for the draw bridge to open and close when a boat passes by in the summer.
As to whether a fishing pier would be placed under the fixed-span bridge to accommodate fishermen, Lee County Department of Transportation Director Randy Cerchie said “we’ve discussed alternatives on fishing piers” though he said it was ultimately up to the county commissioners.
Lee County Government spokesperson Betsy Clayton said a fishing pier would cost an estimated $1 million. Lee County will bear all but $25 million of the cost of the bridge replacement (which the state will cover). Clayton said the county would have to add funding for the fishing pier, if it chooses.
The plans are to replace the draw bridge on the Gulf of Mexico side in 2022 once work on Estero Boulevard is completed. The existing bridge would be operational at both lanes during the construction phase. The county commissioners are expected to review the project again in about a year when they will be asked to approve a contract to hire a construction firm.
The Monday after
On Monday, at the Town of Fort Myers Beach Council meeting, Islands End resident Carol Taddeo derided the planned bridge replacement. “I found that meeting so frustrating,” she said of the public hearing. “People made comments but there were no answers.”
Taddeo said she believed more opposition was needed from the town. “I don’t understand how the commissioners could vote for something when there are so many people on Fort Myers Beach who are against this proposal,” she said.
“We do not want this high bridge. It’s basically for a few luxury yachts that want to get out 24/7. I’ve been here 32 years. There has never been a problem with boats getting out through the draw bridge,” Taddeo said.
“We’re in construction fatigue,” she said. Taddeo noted ongoing work on Estero Boulevard as well as planned construction for Margaritaville and Matanzas Pass Bridge. “Is anybody looking at the overall picture?”
Lee County Department of Transportation Project Manager Tom Marquardt said the Big Carlos Pass Bridge project “should have a minimum effect on traffic.”
Taddeo also questioned the cost projections to replace the bridge or maintain the current one.
According to information provided at Thursday’s hearing, the cost estimate of the bridge itself is $49.6 million (the county’s estimates are $56.8 million) plus $38 million for maintenance over 75 years for a total of $87.77 million for an estimated 75-year lifespan.
The engineering consultants estimated that it will cost $40 million to maintain the existing bridge for the next 20 years. The bridge underwent maintenance work this past fall and is considered safe.
Murphy said the county is using “astronomical” projections.
On Monday, Murphy was still seeking support from the council to send a joint message with the City of Bonita Springs Council to seek a lower draw bridge alternative from the current plans.
Vice Mayor Rexann Hosafros said she wasn’t interested in joining with Bonita Springs.
Councilmember Dan Allers said he believes “that ship has sailed.” Allers said “I don’t feel we are going to make any effect on their minds” though he said he would join the majority of the council if they wanted to send a letter to county officials.
Councilmember Bill Veach said he believed the bridge will be safer for bicyclists.
Veach said he was “concerned that with very little chance of any kind of success, that we’re just creating (a) needless adversarial relationship with the county.”
Councilmember Jim Atterholt said he didn’t think maintaining the current bridge is a good option though he would support a lower bridge. He said it was “quite a feat” to ride a bike or walk around fishermen on the bridge. The new bridge will expand space for walking and biking, he said.
Murphy said the county’s bridge plans are about getting “these big boats through here. We’ve already got a high bridge. It’s called New Pass. You can go right down to New Pass and go out through there. Dredge New Pass the way it should be dredged and you can get big boats through there.”
Murphy said “if we don’t have the support, we don’t have the support.
“The fight isn’t over until they start hauling the stuff as far as I’m concerned.”
According to engineering firm representatives, the bridge will be taken down in pieces by cranes and put in barges. The plans are being coordinated with the Florida Fish and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The plans were required to assess impacts on protected species such as manatees and dolphins.
The public comment period for the bridge project remains open through Feb. 11. The comments are still being accepted through the county’s public information consultants Cella Molnar and Associates. Comments can be sent to [email protected]
Kathy Luce, who lives on Fort Myers Beach, said she and her husband Craig “like the old bridge and how you are close to the water.” Luce said the higher bridge would be “sterile and less accessible.”
Luce said she thinks the new bridge will be less pedestrian friendly as it will be harder to access the higher bridge. “I don’t feel this is a beautiful alternative,” she said.
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