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6th extension granted on Panhandle bridge review

Engineers trying to overcome environmental hurdles for a controversial Panhandle bridge have obtained a sixth extension of the time for review.

The Department of Environmental Regulation granted the Santa Rosa Bay Bridge Authority a two-month extension in order to review information submitted by the engineers to meet the DER's concerns.

"It's their process. We can only go as fast as their process goes," said Linda McCallister of Figg Engineers, project manager for the bridge authority.

But the delays have exhausted the patience of a group of Gulf Breeze residents who say they will deliver hundreds of petitions to Tallahassee urging Gov. Lawton Chiles and the DER to reject a permit.

Calling themselves Ban the Bridge Taxpayers, the Gulf Breeze residents collected 700 signatures against the bridge last weekend, said Bob Newton, a retired Army officer and teacher.

The $84-million project would connect Gulf Breeze and the northern half of Santa Rosa County with a 3.4-mile toll bridge and 7.5-mile road. The bridge authority was created in 1984 by legislation sponsored by House Speaker Bo Johnson. The proposal has been known as Bo's bridge because of Johnson's support. He says he has exerted no influence on the permit decision, staying away from the matter since becoming speaker last year.

Newton said his group gathered signatures in anticipation of a June 21 deadline to issue or deny the permit. The extension, he said, will give opponents more time to circulate their petition.

"This isn't a popular thing up here," he said. "It doesn't go in the right place. It doesn't cut down on traffic from Gulf Breeze to Pensacola. . . . I don't care how long they play with the numbers, we'll end up paying for it."

Another opponent, Margaret Cunningham of Gulf Breeze, said the group is not opposing the bridge on environmental grounds.

"It's just that it's such a boondoggle," she said. "Can you imagine building a two-lane bridge in this day and age?"

Charles Lee, senior vice president of the Florida Audubon Society, this week had asked DER Secretary Virginia Wetherell to reject additional time for the bridge authority and deny a permit.

McCallister said the project is designed to accommodate an eventual expansion to four lanes with a parallel structure.

The authority has agreed to buy and preserve 800 acres of wetlands, establish a breeding ground for the rare Mississippi sandhill crane and improve stormwater treatment at an Interstate 10 interchange in Milton, she said. DER says the authority needs to come up with plans to treat sewage and more stormwater going into Pensacola Bay.

"Our whole objective is to try to do something that's going to be environmentally beneficial," she said. "We believe this will be a model project that will be good for the environment."

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