Watkins, Major stay on as chair and vice-chair of GIBA

■ BY MARCY SHORTUSE    

Ginger Watkins and Lee Major have retained their seats as chairman and vice-chairman, respectively, of the Gasparilla Island Bridge Authority after open nominations were accepted at the organization’s quarterly meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 15. Watkins accepted the position again and acknowledged her goals for her next term.

“Our mission this year is to move traffic across the bridge, collect the tolls as we’re supposed to, and not make any waves anywhere. We just want to function quietly as three bridges and a causeway with no chaos.”

Peter Strong retains his position as chairman of the engineering committee, Lee Major will remain head of the governance committee, and Drew Tucker will be the finance and audit committee chairman.

The board also determined they will retain the attorney they have had for years – Rob Berntsson – and his restructured firm, now called Wideikis, Benedict & Berntsson,

The board is still looking for someone to fill the nonvoting advisory board position that has been available for quite some time. To date there have been no responses to that call.

Strong said the board should discuss the people who had expressed interest in the position in conversation with board members, then ask one of them to fill out an application.

“We can’t take just anyone off the street; it must be a qualified person,” Watkins said.

Anyone interested in that advisory position can call GIBA at (941) 697-2271 for more information.

Strong gave his engineering committee report and announced some bad news: The technical problem in the machinery of the swing bridge that has been discussed in the past will definitely need to be fixed, and it could be costly.

While the first Florida Department of Transportation inspection on the new swing bridge in October, 2016 came back with favorable results, a remediation plan must be put in place regarding the pinion girder movement that is occurring. While it is far less than an inch of movement that the main beam supporting the swing bridge experiences when the bridge opens, Strong said you could see where the new paint was peeling due to the movement and stress.

“I’m not saying it’s a design problem, but we need to act on this down the road,” he said. “It needs to be fixed in the next year or two. Next week we’re going back down to get more measurements.”

Bridge engineers are not admitting liability for the flaw in the structure, and some have written letters to the effect that the movement isn’t a problem.

“We can’t have a gear structure moving a minuscule amount … it creates extra wear on the bridge,” he said. “That will have a significant impact on the 75-year estimated lifespan of the bridge, and it will require constant maintenance if not fixed.”

Strong said while they have several good ideas that could be a solution to this problem, they are not yet ready to announce what those plans are. He said more information will be available at the April board meeting.

In her quarterly report, GIBA Executive Director Kathy Banson-Verrico said truck traffic has been flowing smoothly since the weight limit increase in November, and that a new truck scale plan is in the works.

Banson-Verrico said GIBA has had intermittent problems with the 15-year-old scale they have now, and that a request for proposal to have a new one installed should be drafted. Strong concurred with that and said that the new weight limits are part of the problem.

“Had we not increased the weight limit, we could have just practiced good maintenance and extended this scale’s life,” he said.

After the board approved the RFP request, Banson-Verrico said she will hopefully be sending it out to the four truck scale companies in Florida and possibly have bids back two weeks prior to the April GIBA meeting. She said if the contract could be awarded at that April meeting, the company chosen would have the summer to install the new one and make sure it was running smoothly with the rest of GIBA’s electronic and mechanical truck scale components.

Trucking companies that frequently use the toll bridge scale will be notified in advance prior to the scale being shut down during the change-over.

Banson-Verrico also announced that informational flyers were going to be distributed to truck drivers reminding them of the truck scale hours, and to direct all questions to her regarding the scale.

It was also announced that a company called Weather Flow approached them regarding the potential placement of a weather station on the causeway. While this company usually provides a pay service for their clientele, they will allow GIBA to embed the gathered weather information on their website, giba.us, for free. The board voted on the issue, and a motion was passed to accept Weather Flow’s proposal.

“We are extremely excited to be able to partner with them to provide local weather information to our customers,” Watkins said. “Besides being three bridges and a causeway, we do provide a bit of customer service.”

In other board activity:

• In her executive director’s report, Banson-Verrico said traffic and revenue from Oct. 1, 2016 through December 31, 2016 were running parallel to last year, with cash tolls down two percent but toll pass revenue up 11 percent. Bridge openings in that same time period were down as well. She also mentioned that there are currently 4,882 active toll accounts with GIBA.

• It was announced that GIBA has purchased cyber liability insurance through Key Agency, which will protect GIBA and consumers in the event there is a computer security problem.

• Tom Cramer from the audit firm of Suplee, Shea, Cramer and Rocklein addressed the board with the 2016 fiscal year report and said the bridge authority remains in a “strong financial position” and is meeting all of their loan terms. He reported that revenue is up nine percent, expenses are down by 13 percent, and GIBA’s cash position remains strong.

• The GIBA board voted to create a policy that would take excess accumulated cash flows at the end of each fiscal year and use them to prepay the long-term debt they have accrued. A long-term bridge replacement fund will also be created.