A bridge not taken leads to sad end

By Sue Carlton, Times Columnist

Published Thursday, March 25, 2010

Man, you thought, this was the kind of morning our bridge was made for.

Blue skies, boats, a breeze across the bay. Bikers should have been there in their goofy getups ready to pedal 2.6 miles of concrete across the water. Runners should have been stretching, power walkers gathering in gabby groups. Locals should have been unloading bait buckets from pickups and heading out on a bridge where man and fish have done battle for more than half a century.

But the old bridge sits quiet, padlocked behind a thick rusty chain, only a few fat pelicans and traffic whizzing by on the newer Gandy Bridge nearby to witness its impending end.

Because, yep, barring a miracle, it looks like the old Gandy is a goner, despite the best efforts of those who believed in its second life as the Friendship Trail Bridge, even when everyone else thought they were nuts.

Nuts? Nearly 600,000 of us hit the pavement there annually after it went car-less. Thanks to a rare mix of creativity, determination and governmental cooperation — now there are two words you don’t see together often — a bridge about to be demolished instead reopened as a trail in 1999, the only bike-and-pedestrian-friendly connection between Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, with a great view of both.

We strapped on our sneakers, and we liked it.

But by 2008, the already-old bridge had deteriorated to the point of dangerousness and was abruptly shut down. The cost to fix it for another 10 years: $15 million. Ouch.

The most recent estimate — $48 million — was too daunting even for some of its biggest boosters. A committee of citizens and public officials have now agreed: It’s time to pull the plug.

"There’s just going to be no fix. It’s a goner, it really is," says Frank Miller, executive director of the Friendship Trail Corp., sounding a little sad. He should. We had a shot at saving it.

Federal stimulus money — $23 million — was recently awarded for a network of bike and pedestrian paths connecting Philadelphia and Camden, NJ. Don’t care about being outside? Okay, think economic development and jobs.

Well, yes, last year Hillsborough commissioners did vote to go for similar funding. But their counterparts in Pinellas unanimously — some would say politically, others just wrongly — voted no.

So, it’s over. Some are speculating we could offset the millions it will cost to knock the bridge down if some movie maker wants to pay to blow it up and film it. Oh, sure, now we get all creative about money.

There is just a glimmer of a bright side to this sad end.

The committee recommending demolition also asks that future bridges come with consideration for pedestrian paths — millions of visits to the Friendship Trail being a pretty good sign that we really like this sort of thing.

"Rather than give us a piece of junk at the end of its life expectancy, we get a (new) bridge with 50 years" of life, says Hillsborough Commissioner Al Higginbotham. Did he say "piece of junk?" Heartbreaking. Though "a heartbreak" is exactly what he calls the death of the Friendship Trail.

But future (even existing?) bridges that take runners, cyclists, walkers and people in wheelchairs into consideration? We can dream. Isn’t that how we got our good bridge in the first place?


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