County vote dooms bridge

Published Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Friendship Trail bridge is all but dead.

The Pinellas County Commission voted 7-0 Tuesday against seeking at least $20 million in federal stimulus money to save the closed and deteriorating bridge.

The commission also voted unanimously to ask the bridge's oversight panel to study other funding for repairs and come up with options in 90 days to sustain the bridge or demolish it.

That oversight board already had asked Hillsborough and Pinellas counties to request federal cash. Some commissioners doubted the wisdom of fixing the bridge even if another funding source could be found.

A top supporter said today's vote signaled the end of the bridge.

"I'm going to get more time to work on my golf game," said Frank Miller, executive director of the Friendship Trail Corp., calling the decision "faulty."

Repairs would cost $15 million and are expected to extend the bridge's life for only 10 years. Demolition is expected to cost $13 million. The two counties have $4 million set aside.

"Someday, somebody's going to have to buck up and tear that bridge down," Commissioner Susan Latvala said.

The Hillsborough County Commission had voted 5-2 this month to request the stimulus money. County administrator Pat Bean said that request is unlikely without Pinellas. The bridge is overseen by both counties, and Hillsborough's board approved the request assuming Pinellas would, too.

"I'm surprised," Bean said when she heard of the Pinellas vote. Bean said she would ask Hillsborough commissioners to reconsider their decision at their meeting today, though she needs to clarify Pinellas' actions.

"I don't know if it means they're prepared to put up some funding to tear the bridge down or if they're prepared to leave the bridge sitting there closed," she said.

The counties closed the trail, originally the Gandy Bridge, in November because crumbling concrete posed a safety hazard. That set off supporters' bid to save it, a decade after doing it the first time.

But Latvala said it turned out to be a mistake then, and it would be a mistake now.

"It is a beautiful, fabulous recreation opportunity. … But we knew at the time, it was a time bomb. And now the harm that we did then has come back," Latvala said.

Despite an estimated 600,000 visitors, private financial support to maintain the bridge has been sparse.

However, Miller and supporters said the county was being short-sighted. Not seeking federal money ensures the two counties have to pay to demolish the bridge when the Coast Guard or regulators deem it a hazard, he said.

While Pinellas officials worried the stimulus request could hinder other requests, supporters said it wouldn't directly compete.

The county plans to ask for $40 million to $45 million to expand its "smart system" of traffic lights.

That prompted Miller to say the decision wasn't about spending cash on a bridge.

"It's not about money," he said, "it's about politics."

Times staff writer Janet Zink contributed to this report. David DeCamp can be reached at or (727) 445-4167.

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