BY JAMES A. JONES JR.
When the Fort Hamer Bridge was first proposed to county commissioners on Sept. 9, 1909, fewer than 10,000 people lived in Manatee County. Today, that population is nearing 350,000.
Taking note of the project’s genesis, Public Works Director Ron Schulhofer marked the official opening of Fort Hamer Bridge on Wednesday.
Ground was broken for the 2,318-foot, two-lane bridge on March 19, 2015. The bridge and associated improvements to Fort Hamer Road and Upper Manatee River Road cost $32.6 million.
Betsy Benac, chair of the Manatee County Commission, called the building of the Fort Hamer Bridge inevitable given the rapid growth of Lakewood Ranch and Parrish, and the need for a north-south connector road.
“The bridge will obviously shorten commutes. I happened to notice this morning, when I was driving, the backup on I-75. So this will be a reliever road for I-75,” Benac said.
Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Longboat Key, echoed Benac, saying the new bridge provides a much-needed alternative to I-75.
More people are coming to the area, and projects like the Fort Hamer Bridge are necessary to prevent gridlock, Buchanan said.
“Manatee is a paradise, as is Sarasota County. We have to make sure projects like this get done,” Buchanan said. “This is going to be a gigantic asset.”
Buchanan also took note of the recreational benefits that come with the opening of the bridge, which was designed to be cyclist-, runner- and walker-friendly.
Local residents who turned out for the official opening were delighted as well.
“We love the bridge. We are so excited for it to be opening. It will make a huge benefit for all of us,” North River resident Jean Corn said.
Gretchen Fowler, president of the Parrish Civic Association, said she has heard plenty of chatter in the community about the bridge.
“We had it opened temporarily when the hurricane came through. Once people started using it, we got used to it really fast. We are very thankful that they are finally letting it happen,” Fowler said.
The Fort Hamer Bridge is the longest bridge to be designed and maintained by Manatee County, and eventually could include another two lanes.
More than 1 1/2 million pounds of steel were used in the construction of the bridge, along with 8,125 cubic yards of concrete and 70,427 yards of earth.