MARCO ISLAND — Mike Minozzi gave a brief history Monday to the Marco Island City Council on the decades of work leading to the S.S. Judge Jolley Bridge expansion. A second span with two new lanes is scheduled to be completed in the next three years.
In return, council members and the public gave Minozzi a standing ovation for his dedication and commitment to the bridge project.
Funding for the expansion became available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
“It’s interesting that good fortune has to come to us through a national calamity,” Minozzi said. “Stimulus is something we all will be paying for. At least we will be getting something back.”
Minozzi attributed the project’s beginning to Dick Shanahan, a former Collier County commissioner from Marco Island. For more than two decades he and others petitioned the state for the bridge’s expansion.
Although state legislators looked favorably on the project, they stood on the sidelines and did not come forth with funding, Minozzi said. The project’s start date was continually moved into the future.
Three years ago, residents were given some hope when the state funded $2 million for an engineering design. ARRA funds are restricted to projects that are “shovel ready.” The completed design allowed City Manager Steve Thompson and others to move quickly with a request for funding.
“I was in Tallahassee when the announcement was made,” said Chief Mike Murphy of the City of Marco Island Fire Rescue Department.
“From a fire and emergency standpoint, the expansion will have a great impact on our ability to evacuate the island. Currently, when there is an accident on the bridge, it shuts down our access completely. This will ensure that we can get over the bridge at all times.”
Other requirements for ARRA funding, or stimulus dollars as they are often referred to, include the acquisition of all right of ways.
“All land to be used is owned by the state,” said Minozzi. “No acquisitions are necessary. This project can start very quickly as soon as the paperwork is finished.”
While most see the expansion as a benefit for the community, there are some who dread the idea of more years of construction.
“I still have the T-shirt that says, ‘I survived six years of S.R. 951 construction,’” said Ellen Kretschmer, owner of Kretch’s Restaurant. “We don’t know if we’ll survive this one. We’ve had our share of construction.”
Rony Joel, public works director for the city, estimated the project will take no more than three years and the old span would not be closed during that time.
“There may be a few temporary delays during transition, but it is my understanding that the bridge will never be closed during construction,” he said.
That’s good news for people who travel the bridge on a regular basis.
“The expansion is particularly necessary during heavy use,” said Bill Morris, a local trial attorney who travels to the county’s courthouse almost daily. “Marco Island is one of the three biggest employment centers in the county. At certain times, it’s the perfect storm of seasonal residents and visitors leaving the island for the evening while workers try to get home.
“With the expansion, if there’s an accident, it won’t be the life-ending problem we have now where traffic stops moving. I don’t like the idea of the government spending so much money, but there’s a silver lining to every cloud.”
Others who work on and off the island will experience some inconveniences.
“For realtors, construction will cause a lot of delays and frustration and will hamper showings off the island,” said Jim Prange with Premier Properties. “But building the bridge will also put a lot of people to work. After completion, access will be incredible.”
Marco Island City Councilor Bill Trotter explained that the new span will be placed on the Marco Island Yacht Club side of the current bridge and will be at the same height. The two spans are ranked for different disaster strengths. The new span will meet Category 5 requirements while the old one was built to Category 3 standards.
“If the old span is damaged in a hurricane it can be repaired while the new span handles two-way traffic,” Trotter said.
With ARRA funding, there will be no need to charge tolls to help pay for bridge construction.
“The bridge is good news if it happens,” said John Dougherty, former president of the Marco Island Area Chamber of Commerce and vice president of the corporation that owns Marco Island Hilton Beach Resort. “The fear of a toll goes away. A toll would have been detrimental to the hospitality industry.”
Ewout de Vries, owner of America Travel, expressed similar sentiments.
“We all know that bridge needs to be replaced,” he said. “It’s good for businesses to hear there’s not going to be a toll. It’s a bottleneck right now. In case of emergency such as a hurricane, it’s going to be a great plus to have the extra span.”
Trotter is pleased to see the need for a toll removed for another reason.
“One problem we saw with expanding the bridge was the state’s reluctance to maintain the spans with a toll,” he said. “By doing this without a toll, it’s the best case scenario. We have the new span and the state will maintain both spans.”
The bridge’s construction has been a long time coming for former Marco Chamber of Commerce President Bob Stakich.
“When I was president of the Chamber in 1985, we were fighting for an expansion of the bridge,” he said.
For others, the bridge’s completion will mean less stress and worry.
“My wife has to drive across it at least two times a week during peak hours,” said Keith Klipstein, with Lutgert Insurance and President of the Art League Marco Center for the Arts. “The safety lanes and two one-ways will reduce the risk of accidents and backups.”