■ BY MARCY SHORTUSE
Big changes coming in the latter part of this year were discussed by board members of the Gasparilla Island Bridge Authority at their general meeting held on the afternoon of Wednesday, June 28, including the renovation of the toll booth plaza, new toll collection software, a new advisory member and a few less iguanas.
The toll booth plaza, built in 1999, was the “Taj Mahal” of its time, but time has taken its toll. The roof is in sore need of repair after years of water damage, and the GIBA is just beginning to find out how costly the project will be.
“We have had some issues with some rot in the roof of the toll booths,” said GIBA Executive Director Kathy Banson-Verrico. “We thought it would be easy to fix, and we would just have some local contractor explain what they needed to do. Here we are, eight months later, creating a Request For Proposal (RFP), and finding out it really cannot be repaired. It would cost as much to remodel the old one as it will to build a new one.”
Banson-Verrico said the footprint of the building will essentially stay the same, with a few slight changes in the roof structure to make sure water doesn’t pool on exposed wood. It will be a few feet taller, she said, and foam insulation will be sprayed in the crawl space within to make the toll booths a little cooler.
The Board decided to accept the RFP with an addendum to consider how much steel trusses instead of wood would cost, and that Banson-Verrico would be in charge of determining which company would be the best choice for the job. She advised that 10 companies were interested in doing the work. She also said that while the Board had originally estimated repair costs at $150,000, considering the new scope of work they had been presented with it would probably be a lot more.
The Board also discussed the need for new toll collection software and were presented with another RFP – this one being 18 pages long. GIBA Chairman Ginger Watkins said the new system must be reliable, efficient and most certainly consumer-friendly. The Board expressed concern over requests members of the public had made regarding the possibility of online access for payment of toll accounts. They determined they would initially broach the subject with the creator of the new system – when that creator is chosen – but won’t actively pursue that option for some time, if at all.
The Authority determined they will go through the bids in either November of this year or, if time doesn’t allow, in February of 2018.
Board members agreed they didn’t want to rush the process, as they were still making sure they had everything they needed to make our toll system “special.”
The GIBA also discussed the possibility of installing more cameras with the new system, including the possibility of an Automatic Plate Recognition Camera. While it would not necessarily be hooked into state and federal law enforcement databases, it would provide vehicle and license plate information for all vehicles leaving the island on the swing bridge. They would install it, they said, as more of a deterrent to theft and a community service than anything else.
At the April 25 GIBA quarterly meeting, Watkins voiced a strong opinion that instead of continuing to waffle over who would pay for the security cameras, they should just make the decision to include the cost of the camera and its maintenance in the new toll system contract.
At that time, the Board voted and agreed to accept the camera proposal as part of the toll system RFP.
The Board eventually agreed to accept this RFP process as well, with the hope that they can be sent out for bids by the fall.
Banson-Verrico told the Authority she had met with Boca Grande Fire Department Chief C.W. Blosser regarding brushing up on the bridge’s emergency plan.
“We have a good emergency plan, do not worry,” she said, “but we decided we also needed to create emergency plans with different entities that would be a part of our emergency plan. We started with Chief Blosser and, as it turned out, we didn’t need to go anywhere but to him.”
Watkins said there are two aspects of an emergency scenario they were concerned about: first, if the island had to be shut down for a time, and/or if the traffic flow at the bridge had to be controlled by another agency, such as law enforcement; and second, the possibility of a storm surge washing out the causeway.
Banson-Verrico explained that the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office would be at the bridge immediately after a devastating storm hit the island, and no one would be let on until it was determined to be safe to do so. She also mentioned that the bridge is locked down to boat traffic when winds reach 40 mph. She also mentioned that the bridgetender house would be locked down entirely, as past precedent has shown that people will attempt to enter the house and open the bridge themselves.
Watkins showed concern at the thought of the causeway washing out, meaning that all traffic on and off the island would have to be ferried back and forth.
“We have two companies that could immediately do roadwork,” she said. “We have talked about how fast they could get it fixed. But it could still mean not being able to use the road for five to 10 days in some circumstances.”
She also noted that immediately after Hurricane Charley hit the island in 2004, toll workers were instructed to keep charging people as they came onto the island … including emergency service and utility workers.
“It became a real PR problem,” she explained. “So, Chief Blosser has asked us to think about not charging tolls for a period of time.”
While that sounds like a very logical thing to do, the Board was also reminded that just a week without receiving any toll income would cost the Bridge Authority approximately $100,000. The Board also discussed the issue of iguanas … particularly one large, mean one with no tail that had apparently given the FPL man some choice words recently.
Banson-Verrico said they have been having continuous issues with power outages at the bridge, and when an FPL worker was called upon to investigate what might be the cause, he found that an iguana had been burrowing under a very important electrical box. He hastily explained the situation and spirited himself away under the pretense that his job description did not include hand-to-claw combat with large lizards.
The GIBA Board determined that their logical options are to make a deal with the United States Department of Agriculture, make a deal with iguana trapper George Cera or have one of several GIBA employees who are retired law enforcement officers handle the situation.
Banson-Verrico said she had already spoken with USDA representatives and Cera regarding the job, but no final decision was made at the meeting as to how to proceed, apart from the fact that the Board said Banson-Verrico could continue researching the issue and make the decision on her own.
The Board also welcomed a new advisory member, Jay Feinberg. He has been on the island for six years and has recently gotten married to island resident Cookie Potter. He is a retired real estate developer who graduated from Washington University in St. Louis and attended the Harvard Graduate School of Business and Pacific Coast Law School. He also served in the U.S. Army as a Green Beret in the 12th Special Forces Group (Airborne). Jay has served on various boards before in other communities and feels a strong need to give back to the communities where he lives.
“I spent a lot of years on Catalina Island, so I am very familiar with resort islands and how a huge tourist influx makes a significant impact,” he said.
Jay is currently the president and director of the Equal Justice Coalition, a 501(c)3 organization committed to restoring the sovereignty of statehood in our country, and particularly to repealing the 17th Amendment.
“Everyone needs a hobby,” he said, “and mine happens to be attempting to restore our Republic.”
The GIBA Board unanimously approved Feinberg as an advisory member at Wednesday’s meeting.
In other news, the GIBA Board:
* Talked about their revamped web- site, and the hope that they would soon have a scrolling banner across the top for important emergency messages regarding the bridge;
• Discussed the fact that a weather station would soon be in place on the spoil island between the swing and the Center Bridge, and that the information would be available on GIBA’s website as soon as the station was installed;
• Were notified that the new truck scale project had been delayed, and that the new scale should be here by July 31. Banson-Verrico said the truck lane would then be closed until approximately August 26, depending on how long it took for the concrete to cure. She said that notices of truck scale lane closures would be sent out to the trucking companies and businesses on the island that use those trucks;
• Talked about recent bridge opening failures that occurred while tests were being performed using the backup generator. Banson-Verrico said the motors were tripping, because the original bridge design had included electronic instead of metallic thermal overload switches. Because generator power makes a slower Hertz speed than regular FPL power, overload switches on both bridge drives had to be replaced. Banson-Verrico said the problem is no longer a problem;
• Discussed and voted agreeably regarding a four-percent increase in Banson-Verrico’s salary, as they felt their executive director had “successfully fulfilled the goals she set for herself,” which brings her salary up to just more than $116,000.
The Authority called her performance “meritorious.”