Friendship Trail finds hope

By Bill Varian, Times Staff Writer

Published Wednesday, August 5, 2009

TAMPA — There is hope for the Friendship Trail Bridge yet.

Hillsborough County commissioners agreed Wednesday to seek federal stimulus money to fortify the crumbling recreational span that has been closed since November.

Commissioners voted 5-2 to seek roughly $20 million from a $1.5 billion federal pool earmarked for transportation projects that create jobs and improve community livability. Competition for the grant money is expected to be intense, as cities and counties across the nation line up for a share.

"I've never known this board to be afraid of competition," said Commissioner Rose Ferlita. "Why start now?"

Commissioners Jim Norman and Al Higginbotham voted against the effort. They said spending tax money to fix the bridge, projected to extend its life just 10 years, can't be justified.

Pinellas County commissioners, who share responsibility for the bridge, take up the matter Aug. 18.

The former Gandy Bridge, built in 1956, was slated for demolition in 1997 when the community rallied to save it as a symbolic link between Tampa and St. Petersburg. The $7 million set aside for its destruction was instead put toward making it suitable for bike riders, inline skaters and walkers, installing catwalks for fisherman and repairs.

About 600,000 people used the bridge annually.

Inspectors preparing for roughly $4 million in repairs last year found the span was in worse shape than expected. Steel tendons supporting it were cracking in places and concrete was crumbling.

So the bridge was closed for safety reasons. Now the community is rallying to save the aged span again.

Engineers have estimated it will cost $15 million to extend the bridge's life by another decade. The estimate for tearing it down is $13 million.

Pinellas County Commissioner Calvin Harris, chairman of the Friendship Trail Bridge Oversight Committee, wrote a letter asking commissioners in the two counties to consider other options. That's what Hillsborough commissioners took up Wednesday.

If Pinellas agrees, the two governments will seek a so-called TIGER grant under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Additionally, Harris asked that a business plan be created for long-term operation of the bridge. The local governments would also ask the state to consider taking over the bridge.

"Biking and trails are a tremendous value to our community," said Commissioner Mark Sharpe. "If we can do anything to save it, I think we should."

In other action:

• The board voted unanimously to create an advisory committee for Bully Busters, an antibullying program sought by Commissioner Rose Ferlita. The program will attempt to teach employees in schools, parks and libraries to recognize signs of bullying and to make it easier for children to report it without fear of reprisal.

The proposal is in response to the alleged repeated sexual assaults of a Walker Middle School student by classmates.

• Commissioners agreed to hold a public hearing on a proposal to raise the cost of registering pets by $10 annually. The cost of holding an animal at the shelter would go up $4 nightly. The hikes are meant to avert some of the layoffs proposed in the county's animal services program.

• The board gave County Attorney Renee Lee favorable marks on her annual evaluation, agreeing to extend her contract three years, to 2014.

Bill Varian can be reached at or (813) 226-3387.

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