■ BY MARCY SHORTUSE
The Gasparilla Island Bridge Authority announced at its quarterly board meeting on Wednesday, April 20 that it would be implementing a trial exception period for overweight trucks, which brought about a debate one board member likened to “opening Pandora’s box.”
Several local businesses were represented at the meeting, including Kelley Excavating, The Barnichol Hardware, Hudson’s Grocery and the Gasparilla Island Water Association. While some of those individuals looked somewhat interested at the beginning of the conversation, by the end of it tempers were flaring.
The GIBA board is offering a special exception from June 1 through November 17 for businesses to buy $500 passes for trucks that deliver to them, and a $100 trip charge per truck each time. If, for instance, Hudson’s Grocery wanted to get a pass for their Associated Grocer’s trucks, they would have to pay the $500 just one time for that trucking line, then $100 per trip after that. Board member Lee Major said it was best to “make permits expensive enough to discourage others.”
But Hudson’s owner Emily Wise said she will not be doing that, even though their business suffers more than many on the island because of the weight restriction. She and Howard, her husband, explained to the Board that they have had to buy their own truck and trailer to meet the large delivery trucks at Eldred’s Marina to offload excess weight into their own vehicle, then drive it over the bridge.
“We won’t pay that price at any time,” Emily said.
The restriction exception is not so cut and dried. Each time a truck that carries a load between 40,000 and 80,000 pounds needs to come over the bridge, they will have to give 24-hour notice to GIBA and be issued the permit. When they come across, both lanes of traffic will need to be shut down, and flagmen will be set up at either side of the bride to allow just that one truck across, going 20 mph.
This had some business people confused, and one even explained to the Board that an 80,000-pound limit on a roadway didn’t mean that no other vehicles could be on that road at the same time, it meant that the road was rated for trucks of that weight in general.
After he asked the Board to confirm that the bridge had been built to Florida Department of Transportation standards (including an 80,000-pound weight limit), Kevin Kelley of Kelley Excavating asked a question many other business owners have been asking as well.
“From what I understand, 80,000-pound bridges are designed to take the traffic in normal situations,” he said. “I’m following what you’re saying, I understand the need for stopping and flagging. That bridge under that standard doesn’t mean 80,000 total, that’s already figured in for extra traffic. There are some areas here that need to be clarified. I think it’s a nice bridge, just like rest of the bridges in state are. Why can’t it be used as such?”
Engineering Committee Chairman Peter Strong responded, saying that our swing bridge isn’t built like any other bridge in the state, and perhaps in the whole country.
“There hasn’t been a swing bridge built in Florida for years,” he said. “It’s a unique engineering structure. We have no way to compare.”
As the debate continued, it was apparent that GIBA Board member David Hayes had the need to speak. And speak he did at the very end of the meeting, chastising the Board for being unreasonable. The crowd responded with applause.
“You’re cutting traffic substantially by going to 80,000 pounds,” Hayes said. “Instead of five concrete trucks, you would have one or two. Not only is the bridge built for that, but the roads are, too. Roads are equipped to handle these loads. The tour buses are a non-issue.
“Please tell me why you wouldn’t do it, I just want to know,” Hayes said. “We paid for it, and you’re reducing traffic! That improves everybody’s lives. I sure as hell want one truck of concrete, instead of four or five, and save money at the same time. And shame on us for not letting Hudson’s or The Barnichol have trucks that are a few thousand pounds overweight when the bridge is more than capable of taking that. For God’s sake, why would you do that? Why? And I’m done. You heard what I have to say and I’m not changing my mind.”
The irony of the special exception is that it was created to help Boca Grande Isles Property Owners Association complete their own bridge renovation. BGIPOA President John Jackoboice had petitioned the Board for an exception for trucks to come over the Boca Grande Causeway bridges for their own bridge project, but he revealed at Wednesday’s meeting that their need had been put off until later in the year as well. While GIBA Chairman Ginger Watkins explained that the special exception wasn’t necessarily designed to accommodate just the BGIPOA request, and that there were numerous requests for special exceptions, if the Board approved the policy it would be open to anyone interested in participating. “It’s not really an exception,” she said. “It’s a policy offering a permit.”
Board member Lee Major didn’t want any special exceptions to the weight restriction at all.
“What brought this whole thing to a head was BGIPOA and their bridge,” he said. “They want it completed during off season. I can sympathize with that. However, decisions made in haste are regretted in leisure. My understanding is at this point that BGIPOA does not have any bids for anyone to build that bridge, and as a consequence they wont’ be building as early as they thought. If that’s the case, I’m not sure if this is really timely.”
“There seems to be a lot being made about this FDOT certification. My understanding is the FDOT doesn’t require that,because we built the bridge to 80,000-pound standards. Lots of people out here don’t want the restriction raised. At least the majority I’ve talked to don’t.”
When the same argument against heavier trucks came up regarding damage to the rest of the roadway, including the roads in the village and Gasparilla Road, the fact was seriously questioned.
Board member Gay Darsie summed the situation up quickly. “We are not the road police.”
Kelley explained he drives his excavating trucks all over the island with 80,000 pounds of weight on them; he just doesn’t cross the bridge.
“This road has been overlaid about four times, and it’s this thick now.” He then held his hands apart to show approximately eight inches or more.
After the Board passed the special exception proposal, Hayes confronted Major about some of his comments.
“Because of this exception we opened up Pandora’s box,” he said. “You said there were a majority of people on the island who don’t want restrictions increased. Who are these people?
Major responded he didn’t say a majority, he said a “substantial number.”
Hayes retorted, saying, “We represent more than just the Board members’ group of people, it’s the whole island who should make this decision. But the one thing I’ve learned about Boca Grande and what it cares about is to keep it just the way it is. On the other hand, we make huge improvements all the time. This takes a tremendous amount of time and effort. Let’s say that Peter gets the bridge certified for the 80,000 pounds. If we do have a substantial amount of people on the island who think the weight should stay the same, that’s fine. But we built these beautiful bridges to that weight.”
“That was only to get the financing,” Major said.
Read next week’s Boca Beacon for more on this meeting, and a potential problem with resonance on the swing bridge. See the Boca Beacon Facebook page for a sound byte from the meeting as well.