Buying time for Friendship Trail
It would be a shame for the region to lose Friendship Trail Bridge, a span of the old Gandy Bridge that, until recently, served as a recreational trail linking Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.
Local leaders need to do their utmost to save it, but they also have to be careful about the financial commitment.
The bridge is now closed. Engineers say deteriorated pilings make it unsafe, and a consultant's report estimates it would cost $15 million to repair.
There is no question preserving this unique regional amenity is worth $15 million.
But consultants say the repairs would only last about 10 years. Then the community could be faced with another $15 million - or probably far more - bill.
Hillsborough and Pinellas cannot afford to be tossing tens of millions of dollars into the bay every decade.
The bikers, hikers, anglers and other bridge enthusiasts understandably question the 10-year prediction. After all, roller bladers and joggers don't cause the wear and tear of a semi.
But Bob Gordon, Hillsborough County public works director, explains, traffic is not the issue.
"This is a 50-year-old structure," he says. "It's wearing out."
Corroded steel in the pilings is undermining the foundation. The damage is most acute where the water is shallow and wave action intense.
Gordon says the repair plan would fix the unsafe pilings, but, short of rebuilding the bridge's support structure, the deterioration would continue.
Gordon says the ideal solution would be for the state Department of Transportation to include a recreational trail when it builds a new Gandy Bridge, but, alas, a new bridge is not planned for 20 years.
Still, local officials should take every reasonable action to save Friendship Trail. Hillsborough Commissioner Jim Norman suggests the bridge be turned over to the state park system, which operates a bridge-fishing pier near Jacksonville. But it's unlikely the state, facing its own budget woes, is going to take on any additional expenses.
A better strategy would be to pursue federal dollars. The U.S. Department of Transportation offers $20 million "Tiger" grants to communities. Part of the Recovery Act, the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grants are intended for transportation infrastructure, including trails and such.
And the investment in repairing the bridge, and maintaining a unique attraction, begins to look more reasonable when one considers the estimated cost for tearing it down is almost as much - $13 million.
If the repairs would last 20 years, there would no be question about the wisdom of pursuing the project.
Officials should double-check the estimates on the costs and the life of the bridge.
But even if repairs would buy only another 10 years for Friendship Trail, the investment might be justified.
After all, the bridge is exceptionally popular with residents on both sides of the bay. And in better economic times, private and state dollars might be available for future renovations. A way might be found to maintain the trail until a new Gandy Bridge is built.
Hillsborough and Pinellas commissioners do need to be cautious about expenses, but they should be reluctant to give up on a recreational resource that enriches all of West-Central Florida.
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