End of the Friendship Trail? Maybe not

By Sue Carlton, Times columnist

Published Friday, August 28, 2009

The voices of citizens, the thumbs-up from fellow politicians, the 600,000 yearly visits by outdoor enthusiasts — none of that was enough to persuade the Pinellas County Commission to vote to save the Friendship Trail Bridge.

Okay, slight exaggeration. Make that: None of that was enough to get them to try to save it with a really, really promising idea.

Earlier this month, commissioners voted unanimously against going after at least $20 million in federal stimulus money to fix what ails our bridge. They also sent an oversight committee back to again look at options, but bridge enthusiasts feared their no vote could mark the end of the Friendship Trail.

Can a 2.6-mile recreational bridge, even an immensely popular one, survive these times?

Here's the dilemma: We can spend $15 million to make the aging bridge that stretches across the water between Hills­borough and Pinellas structurally safe for the cyclists, runners, skaters and strollers who flock there for another 10 years. And yes, the fact that the fix is only good for 10 years is a legitimate concern.

Or, we can pay $13 million to knock it down, a cool and unique park gone for good.

The old Gandy Bridge, which reopened as a car-free mecca 10 years ago, was abruptly shut down last year because of deterioration. Things looked bad for the bridge, because who was going to vote to spend money to save it?

But: It would cost only $2 million less to destroy it.

And: Maybe they could find some clever funding.

And: It turned out people really, really like the bridge.

Hundreds packed community meetings on both sides of the bay. Of 211 who commented out loud or in writing, only nine were against saving the bridge.

Miracle of miracles, the Hillsborough Commission, in the same squeeze-every-penny mode as everyone else, voted 5-2 to go after the stimulus money. But their Pinellas counterparts declined, worried it might hinder other local requests, a theory some dismiss.

Supporters said that vote all but killed the bridge, since Hillsborough won't likely proceed without Pinellas. Still, you hear hope in talk of municipal bonds and business plans, fundraising bike rides and county-to-county runs, user fees and better planned donation stations. The oversight committee has 90 days to come up with options.

If you are lucky enough to have spent time out there, boats below, sky above, downtowns on either side, you already know. This is a place for hard core runners and serious cyclists, for kids on training wheels behind parents, for fishermen, for packs of walkers doing as much socializing as walking — pretty much anyone who gets that being outside is part of why we like it here.

Ben Ritter, a paraplegic and the government relations director for the Florida Gulf Coast Chapter of Paralyzed Veterans of America, liked to ride his three-wheeled cycle across. For him, the Pinellas Trail and Tampa's Bayshore Boulevard don't hold a candle to the bridge.

"It's a bay area treasure," he says, "A national treasure."

Absolutely, we should applaud fiscal frugality. But even in this economy, it's worth finding creative solutions for keeping the good stuff from disappearing forever.


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