Panel wants to save trail bridge

By Robbyn Mitchell, Times Staff Writer

Published Wednesday, July 15, 2009

TAMPA — After more than an hour of impassioned speeches from fishermen, bicyclists, nature lovers and advocates for the disabled, Pinellas County Commissioner Calvin Harris said the Friendship Trail Bridge oversight committee will recommend that the ailing structure be repaired and preserved.

Around 250 people tried to cram into a meeting room built for 150 at Jan K. Platt Library in South Tampa on Wednesday night to show support for the 54-year-old landmark. The pedestrian bridge has been closed since November 2008 because of structural and safety issues outlined by county contracted engineers.

The crowd listened to a presentation by KCA engineer David B. Thompson as he laid out four options for the bridge's future.

One option would be to find $15 million to repair the entire structure, giving the bridge about 10 more years of life, he said.

The other options were tearing down the bridge's center leaving catwalks, tearing it all down and adding fishing piers, tearing it down and building piers someplace else or just tearing it down.

Ben Ritter, speaking for the local Paralyzed Veterans of America, said demolishing the bridge would be paid out of county budgets, but there is a federal grant that could pay for repairs.

"The government is going to spend that pork money somewhere. We might as well bring on home the bacon and fry it up," quipped committee member Tom Bryan.

The committee, appointed by Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, took no formal vote. Harris said members had a "consensus'' that the counties should try to salvage the entire bridge, and will recommend that to their commissions. But two Hillsborough commissioners serving on the committee sounded skeptical.

Commissioner Al Higginbotham said it was troubling that $15 million would extend the bridge's life only a decade.

"I'd always heard about the old Gandy bridge, but it was just a slab on concrete to me," he said. "But then I heard all the impassioned stories. … I'm most concerned with, if we spend that money and we still have to tear it down in 10 years."

Commissioner Jim Norman also raised fiscal concerns. "When I voted against this project all those years ago, it was because I knew this would happen," he said.

When the idea of a pedestrian bridge was first proposed, he wanted to approach the state about declaring it a state park.

Frank Miller, executive director of the Friendship Trail Corp., said advocates preferred more local control at the time.

Norman urged that the counties try to get the state and the cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg involved.

"We heard two things from all of you tonight. You want us to keep the bridge and apply for the grant, and Commissioner Norman has just added a third with the state part," Harris concluded.

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