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Bush veto prompts senator to drop bridge support

A month after Gov. Jeb Bush vetoed a bailout for a controversial Panhandle toll bridge, state Sen. Ken Pruitt has effectively pulled the plug on a toll bridge on the east coast that the Port St. Lucie lawmaker had backed for years.

Pruitt announced last week that he is asking the state Department of Transportation to take $20-million that he had steered to a toll bridge to Hutchinson Island and instead use it for another, less controversial bridge project in Port St. Lucie. DOT officials quickly agreed.

The move delighted opponents of the proposed toll bridge. The bridge would have cut through the marshes of the Savannas State Preserve and seagrass beds in the Indian River Lagoon _ the nation's most productive estuary _ and terminated next to a sea turtle nesting area on the island proposed for inclusion in Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge.

"Isn't it amazing?" said Kevin Stinnette of the Treasure Coast Environmental Defense Fund, who has spent years fighting the project. "It looks very dead."

Losing Pruitt's support dooms not only the bridge to Hutchinson Island but also the St. Lucie County Expressway and Bridge Authority, which was supposed to build the bridge, said one authority member, St. Lucie County Commissioner John Bruhn.

"I don't see any reason to go on," Bruhn said Monday, promising that at the next authority meeting he will move to disband the agency.

Pruitt agreed that the authority should be disbanded. "If there's no pending project," the GOP senator said, "then there's no sense to have them."

Pruitt said he recommended that the DOT switch projects at the behest of local officials, who had asked him to use the money to jump-start another bridge within the city that they think is needed more urgently.

Bruhn said the governor's veto of a $1.4-million state bailout of the troubled Garcon Point Bridge near Pensacola "had a lot to do with" that move because it signaled that the Hutchinson Island bridge, which also has a questionable financial picture, could face a similar fate.

"That showed that the state is not going to support these projects that are not a sure thing, that are not going to pay for themselves," Bruhn said.

The Garcon Point Bridge over eastern Pensacola Bay, a pet project of former House Speaker Bolley "Bo" Johnson, is drawing half the motorists experts predicted when the Santa Rosa Bay Bridge Authority approved a $95-million bond issue to build it.

The Panhandle bridge was nicknamed "Bo's Bridge" after Johnson, a Milton Democrat who recently completed a prison sentence for an unrelated tax evasion conviction. Before the bridge was built, critics called it a boondoggle that would harm Pensacola Bay and never attract enough motorists to justify its $52-million price tag. They said it was being built to profit land speculators, including Johnson.

Now the bridge authority's director has quit, its bonds have been downgraded to junk status and its toll was increased from $2 to $2.50. After the governor vetoed their bailout, authority members said they may fire their secretary, close their office and sell the furniture to stave off financial collapse.

The company that built the Garcon Point Bridge, Odebrecht-Metric, pleaded guilty last year to illegally dumping waste into the bay, cutting corners to finish quickly. At least one inspector from Figg Bridge Engineers told investigators he witnessed the dumping, but Figg did nothing to stop it.

The St. Lucie County Expressway and Bridge Authority had hired Figg too, based on its success in getting the Garcon Point Bridge built ahead of schedule. Opponents of the Hutchinson Island bridge turned Figg's involvement into a liability, warning that the St. Lucie authority was headed toward a similar debacle. They even dubbed it "Ken's Bridge" because of Pruitt's involvement.

Although the DOT said the Hutchinson Island bridge was unnecessary and experts said it would not attract enough drivers to pay for itself, Pruitt has steered $25-million of state money to the project: a $5-million loan and a $20-million grant.

"I have done what I have to do to get the project in play," Pruitt said last year. But on Monday he said he now has no idea whether the Hutchinson Island bridge will ever be built.

The new bridge to which Pruitt has switched the DOT money has its own problems. The proposed bridge will cross the North Fork of the St. Lucie River, through land the state bought to protect from development. DEP experts said in 1999 that city officials could not have picked a worse route, because the bridge would cut a concrete swath through the widest part of the preserve.