TAMPA — A planned bridge over Interstate 75 in New Tampa can move ahead in spite of environmental concerns, a hearing officer has recommended.
The Hillsborough County Commission, acting as the Environmental Protection Commission, will decide whether to give the wetlands permit final approval on April 15.
West Meadows poet Evelyn Romano, represented by Tampa Palms lawyer Warren Dixon, had challenged the permit. They say circumstances have changed since the city applied for it in 2005. For example: Bartels Middle School now serves children on the east side of the highway, making it unnecessary to bus them to Liberty Middle School.
The bridge would link New Tampa Boulevard to Commerce Park Boulevard, which feeds Tampa Palms Boulevard.
While Romano had argued that the bridge would interfere with her enjoyment of the wetlands, hearing officer John Voelpel ruled that she did not have standing. And he declined to consider traffic conditions more than a half-mile from the site, said Dixon, who argues that Voelpel should have considered ongoing improvements to area highways as well as Bruce B. Downs Boulevard.
"We're saying you haven't needed this bridge for 20 years and you haven't looked at the other construction projects to determine whether you still need it," Dixon said. "If you don't need it, you can't take the wetlands. The law is very clear about that."
Andrew Zodrow, the EPC's attorney, said that while he questioned the need at first, "(The city) did demonstrate to us a sufficient need for the road in the community." And City Attorney Chip Fletcher said, "This permit is not about traffic. It's about the environmental impact."
While the EPC cannot reverse Voelpel's findings of fact, Dixon said, the board can send the matter back for more review.
The bridge was long planned as part of an east-west connector road that would lead to I-275. The cost led city officials to scuttle plans for the connector but not the bridge.
Since Dixon began his campaign more than a year ago, the city and county have tweaked their schedules so the bridge will not open while the middle section of Bruce B. Downs is being widened. That would have been a worst-case scenario for Tampa Palms, as drivers would have flocked to the bridge to avoid a construction bottleneck.
Staff writer Marlene Sokol can be reached at sokol@sptimes or (813) 909-4602.