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Remarks on the Bridge Authority’s early years


Editor’s Note: At her last meeting as chairman last month, outgoing GIBA Chairman Ginger Watkins assembled facts and history about the Gasparilla Island Bridge Authority. We have presented here a brief excerpt for Beacon readers who wish to know more about the “early years” from 1996 on.

The Gasparilla Island Bridge Authority’s first official meeting was Nov. 16, 1996. Every meeting for the next 28 years (and there have been more than 100) was publicized, held in the sunshine with very consistent and informative minutes recorded. And just as we do now, the names of the members present, all motions made and the number of yea’s and nay’s were recorded. But this is not where it all started.

Led by Bayard Sharp, a committee of nine people had formed the Gasparilla Causeway Inc. (Gaspar), a 501(c)3 nonprofit, several years earlier. These were citizens concerned about the maintenance of the bridges at that time and the next few years of Gaspar’s franchise before its expiration in 2002. They worked with the state representatives from Lee and Charlotte County to create a legislative act that would form GIBA, a public entity to own and manage the bridges, and causeway, including the right-of-way. It took two legislative sessions and much lobbying to get it approved in 1996.

When the bill was approved, it included a provision that the electors (registered voters) in Boca Grande, Charlotte and Lee would elect the five voting members, who would in turn elect the four nonvoting members who were not required to be electors. It also provided that the tolls would not increase above $5 for ten years.

One glitch that happened before the governor’s signature was affixed was an amendment that said that there would be an automatic ad valorem tax of 0.2 mil with the cap to tolls of $5 for ten years. Since the original committee had agreed that any ad valorem tax required the positive vote of the community, this held up the passing until the term “automatic” could be removed. So GIBA’s birthday is considered to be Nov 1996.

Each voting and nonvoting member was assigned responsibilities to create the working structure. Charles Smylie and Don Carrol were chairman and vice chairman, respectively, and designated in charge of the finances, legal matters and making it all work together. Larry Williams was responsible for engineering, Bob Melvin for toll rates, and George Degenaro for procedures. Karen Grace, Dan Campo and Melvin were to form a job description and plans for hiring an executive director. In GIBA’s first year:

• $100,000 was borrowed from Englewood Bank to engage surveying and engineering studies; proposals for long-term financing were evaluated and Nations Bank chosen for three loans totaling $10,200,000.

• The act confirmed that any ad valorem tax would require a referendum.

• The current toll rate structure was confirmed at $3.20.

In November of 1997, the purchase agreement was signed between Gaspar  and GIBA for $7,900,000. The financing was in place, with maintenance and repair proposals to hopefully make the bridges last for 15 more years. In December 1997, GIBA held a public meeting in which Karen Grace reviewed a list of 91 resumes for executive director and reduced it to 10 candidates, with four making presentations. Jim Cooper was awarded the job.

In January 1998, and in compliance with NationsBank, the audit firm of Supplee and Shay were hired to work monthly on creating a proper accounting system in compliance with state and bank reporting regulations. The early years saw many challenges:

• convincing Charlotte County to create a turn lane and a red light on Placida Road, with many in Boca Grande opposed, as they wanted to be hard to find;

• building the new toll booth, which opened in 2001. Seventy-five people came to the design meeting to add their own ideas, resulting in the addition of a second design firm.

• changing the logo, to substitute the tarpon for the dolphin;

• dealing with demands that all invasive plant species be removed from the Causeway;

• handling complaints from travelers about slow processing of change, so the toll was raised from 3.20 to 3.25 and then to 3.50;

•removing photo IDs from toll passcards;

• in 1998, agreeing to the Valic Retirement Plan for employees, with the contribution amount be reviewed each year; (However, it has been 8 percent every November for 25 years.)

• Board worries that discount pass usage was increasing and cash passes decreasing, resulting in less income;

In 2000, Joe Anderson was a hired to be the consultant on an electronic toll system, and in 2001 came the first self-can lane. The years 2004-06 saw the real change in direction when inspectors reported that all three bridges needed replacing, with the South Bridge first as it had the most structural problems. The 15-year life was nonexistent.

The challenges for the Board and the community were felt everywhere: what to build and how to pay for the construction. While it was not liked at all, the community accepted the need for the 20 mph speed limits that were put in place to protect the existing bridges. From 2007 until 2018, when all the bridges were finished and bumps removed, speed limits went back to 35 and weight limits to 80,000 lbs. A loan was signed with the State Infrastructure Bank for 30 years.