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Tuesday September 16th 2014

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Inside FDOT hearing on new Pensacola Bay Bridge

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Bicyclists and runners made their voice heard at Tuesday night’s public hearing on the Florida Department of Transportation’s proposed six-lane Pensacola Bay Bridge connecting Pensacola to Gulf Breeze.

They want 10-foot paths on both sides of the bridge that allow for cyclists and pedestrians to travel, after the DOT provided an option that would have a northbound path only to save taxpayers an estimated $17 million.

The FDOT finally revealed its two routes – the $665 million Central East Alternative and the $651 million Central West Alternative.

State transportation officials prefer the Central West Alternative primarily because it is less disruptive to the environment, businesses and residences.

After heated meetings over the years on discussion of the size of the bridge, the increased traffic jams it would allegedly cause, where it should land and impact on the environment, the dual pathways drew the most support and criticism during a public comment period that lasted only 22 minutes from the overflowing crowd. Concerned citizens packed the meeting room that sat about 70 people at the Crowne Plaza in downtown Pensacola and lined the side and back walls spilling out into the hallway.

Plus, as public comments were being made many others jammed the adjoining meeting space where the DOT set up poster-size drawings illustrating the various options for the bridge.

The plans, which must be approved by the Federal Highway Administration, would take an estimated five years to build once accepted later this year.

Although both Pensacola and Gulf Breeze do not have pathways as large as the ones on the bridge to accomodate walkers, runners and cyclists, Gulf Breeze City Manager Buz Eddy said he preferred the dual multiuse pathways.

“This is my personal feeling more than one as a city official but the bike paths on both sides are great,” he said.

He also reported that the “reasonable” six-lane bridge has started the city looking to create more alternative routes within Gulf Breeze, so residents can avoid U.S. Highway 98.

“It could be a challenge for the City of Gulf Breeze to develop some alternative corridors and streets that allow local traffic outside of 98,” he admitted.

Meanwhile, the West Florida Wheelman cycling group and others rallied their support for both bridge pathways, while also telling city officials on both sides of the bridge they will have to create better and more safe pathways.

Christian Wagley said cycling groups eventually hope to connect the beach to northern Escambia and Santa Rosa counties.

“People are driving less and biking more,” Wagley said. “This has got to happen on the bridge.”

Paul Epstien, who owns a Pensacola running store, said the dual bridge pathways are “critically important for safety reasons. Having people going opposite directions is almost as dangerous as vehicles. Having one pathway is like having one less arm.”

However, Deborah Moore said she would like to see the $17 million savings from having just one pathway spent on upgrading a southbound 17th Street flyover to alleviate traffic headed toward the beach. Instead of stopping at the light at 17th Street and the bridge, cars heading south would drive up a ramp and swing over and merge with bridge traffic without having to stop.

“I know I’m the unpopular opinion but I don’t see the bridge needing two paths,” she said.

However, some Pensacola citizens, including city councilman Brian Spencer, opposed the 17th Street flyover, basically calling it ugly. Spencer also forecasted that the bridge will require the city to make major improvements to Gregory Street, a prime commercial road, and Bayfront Parkway.

DOT consultant Dan Kristoff Jr. said the flyover “would dramatically improve flow.”

But Spencer said: “It’s not at all what we or I personally want to see as the gateway to Pensacola.”

Steve Gracek and Charlene Sanders, who live at 1629 E. Heinberg St. which overlooks the bridge and bay, also opposed the flyover. Sanders worried it would encourage the 17th Street bridge graffitti to continue onto the flyover. Gracek said: “If you want our city to look like that one day, you’re crazy.”

Others derided it as creating a “concrete jungle” like southern Florida cities.

Instead, some suggested making 17th Street one-way going north into Pensacola and making 14th Street the major route going southbound. Others suggested allowing fishing off the replacement bridge.

Ed Gray, a Gulf Breeze resident, said the bridge continues to add to traffic and suggested correcting “choke points” at 17th Street and the bridge, Gulf Breeze intersections along U.S. 98 and the Bob Sikes Bridge to Pensacola Beach. He supported the flyover with aesthetic enhancements and suggested Escambia County “get rid of the gates” that charge a $1 toll to enter the beach. His other suggestion: Add blinders so rubberneckers don’t slow down on the bridge trying to view construction.

Robin Foley questioned, too, whether Pensacola would be able to handle future traffic coming off the Pensacola Bay Bridge. “It looks like the city is going to have to step up to the plate. Should we have a speedway near the entrance to the city?”

To view the DOT’s plan go to www.pensacolabaybridge.com.

The public can still comment on the DOT’s proposed plans for the next 10 days in writing. All written comments must be postmarked by June 20 and sent to: Brandon Bruner, Environmental Management Engineer, FDOT District 3, 1074 Highway 90, Chipley, Fla., 32428. The office can be called at 850-415-9625. Bruner can be reached by email at joseph.bruner@dot.state.fl.us.