A Bridge Too Far?

Published June 1, 2003

Looking out my bedroom window, I see what to me is paradise.

Old, mature oak trees scattered amidst rolling pasture. A leisurely, two-lane country road, Ft. Hamer Road, separates my backyard from the cows and horses grazing in Rawls farm. An occasional pickup truck hauls feed or equipment down the road to one of the local farms, but the vehicles are few and far between. Just a mile away, Ft. Hamer Road dead-ends at the Manatee River. Only a few farmhouses dot the pastures between my house and the river.

I have occasionally ventured to the end of Ft. Hamer Road, where a small park, if you can call it that, sits precariously on the bank of the slow-moving water. A gravel parking lot accommodates about six cars, but it looks like it could slip into the water at any time. I have only once seen another car there. An old swingset and weather-worn picnic table sit unused under an old oak tree and some cabbage palms.

At first glance, you’d never know my home is within a mile of “ground zero” for one of the largest environmental disputes in the state of Florida.

Suburbanization Looms

Manatee County is 35 miles from Tampa, and suburbs are beginning to creep their way here. With suburbs come new roads and other infrastructure–such as the proposed new bridge over the headwaters of the Manatee River, where Ft. Hamer Road dead-ends.

Although the area is still quite rural, the signs of oncoming suburbanization are clear. A few tasteful subdivisions have sprung up on Old Tampa Road, which intersects with Ft. Hamer Road near my home. Others are proposed. A new grocery store and strip mall have been built three miles away on U.S. 301. A new elementary school is under construction another two miles beyond the new grocery store.

Ft. Hamer Road has been prominent in the local news, because the Sierra Club and other anti-growth groups have been lobbying against the proposed Ft. Hamer bridge.

The bridge is being proposed at a very logical site. Similar suburbanization is occurring on the opposite shore of the river. A bridge would link the similar communities. Moreover, many of the new residents on this side of the river work in Sarasota, which is 30 miles away by current roads, but would be only 15 or 20 miles away if residents could cross the Manatee River at Ft. Hamer Road.

Although the convenience and logic of a Ft. Hamer bridge are apparent, it is easy to see what will happen to my little slice of paradise were the bridge to be built. Cars and trucks that currently whip down U.S. 301 three miles away would use Ft. Hamer Road to reach Sarasota. My quiet, pristine view would be disrupted by construction to widen Ft. Hamer Road, and by the noise and congestion of traffic the new bridge will bring.

I Really Tried to Rally

When the Sierra Club recently held an anti-bridge rally at the proposed bridge site, I decided to check it out. Deep in my heart, I must admit, I was hoping the group would identify some compelling reason–perhaps an endangered species (manatees? panthers?) relying on this stretch of the river–that would justify scrapping the bridge or relocating it to some other road.

Arriving at the Saturday afternoon rally, I was shocked at what I saw.

Portable tables, chairs, and bunting were everywhere. A food cart serving Italian sausage, hamburgers, hot dogs, etc.–undoubtedly offending the animal rights activists in attendance–blocked the view of the river.

The food cart attendant was spraying pesticide (roach killer) all around his cart (I had never before seen a cockroach anywhere near the river), and a soccer mom sporting a green Sierra Club t-shirt was soaking her children with Deep Woods Off. Anti-bridge literature was lifted by the breeze and carried into the underbrush and river.

Overlooking the obvious shortcomings of the amateur environmental activists, I approached a large table covered with literature and staffed by what appeared to be a Sierra Club professional. I introduced myself to a 60-ish woman wearing a sun hat and fanny-pack, and I explained my interest in the rally. I live locally and am not sure how I feel about the bridge, I told the woman.

“I want to protect the environment, and especially that part of the environment that is right in my backyard, but the world needs houses, roads, and bridges, too,” I explained. “Tell me why, in your opinion, I should oppose the bridge.”

The woman told me the environment is sacred and should be undisturbed by humans. “But,” I countered, “by that logic, I am an offender myself, as I live just one mile away.”

“Ah, but you are already here, and you are not requiring a bridge.”

“Yes, but don’t people who want to live here have a legitimate interest in a direct route to Sarasota? It seems to me that we are sending all sorts of unnecessary pollution into the air, and causing all sorts of congestion along current roads, by forcing people to drive more miles to work.”

“Then they shouldn’t live here.”

“Just out of curiosity,” I asked her, “where do you live? I’ve never seen you or anybody else here at the river before.”

The woman explained she lived about 20 miles away in, she recounted fondly, a 30-acre country estate.

“Let me play devil’s advocate for a minute,” I said. “Aren’t you also harming the environment by living out here in the country?”

“Well, my home barely impacts the environment, as it takes up just a small part of my 30 country acres,” she said. “These new subdivisions are a different matter,” she added with contempt.

“What about less-affluent people who can’t afford 30 acres? Don’t they have a right to escape the city and raise their children in a quiet and family-friendly environment, too?”

The activist furrowed her brow and didn’t answer, apparently considering me a potential enemy. Nevertheless, she still had a chance to win my support, if she could properly answer my final question:

“Are there any endangered species that would be harmed by the bridge?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “There may well be, but I don’t know. We mainly oppose the bridge because it would be unsightly and would encourage people to move here from Tampa. If we can find an endangered species that would be harmed, that would be even better.”

Disgusted, I gave up and went home. “Why did I expect anything different?” I asked myself. Self-interest or not, the bridge makes sense, and I’ll support it.

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News. His email address is [email protected].