January 12, 2011

Friendship Trail Bridge's days are few, but supporters are many

By Philip Morgan, Times Staff Writer

As Hillsborough prepares to demolish parts of the Friendship Trail Bridge, fans still miss it.

GANDY - A padlocked chain-link gate provides a tantalizing view of concrete stretching over water, a former traffic thoroughfare that's just right for hiking, jogging and biking.

But the old Gandy Bridge-turned-Friendship Trail seems fated to crumble with a bit of help.

The Hillsborough County Commission voted last week to split the $4.4 million cost of having much of it destroyed. Pinellas County would pay the other half. It would cost an additional $7.7 million to remove it completely, and John Lyons, interim public works director for Hillsborough, said the funds for that aren't yet in the budget.

Some 600,000 people a year reportedly used the Friendship Trail Bridge in its heyday. Now, only human trail markers - Styrofoam cups, plastic bottles, beer cartons - populate the pavement and tall weeds behind the gate.

"I miss it so much. I would walk over the hump clear to the other side, and I'd walk back," says Anna Ruth Baldwin, a 76-year-old South Tampa resident.

"I'm a caretaker for a brother who has Alzheimer's, and it's a little serenity for me."

She still strolls the parking lot and road in front of the gate with her dog, Tammy, whom she adopted after the trail closed in late 2008.

Baldwin walked the fishing catwalks along the side back when the span carried traffic. The catwalks closed with the Friendship Trail.

County officials insist that the bridge would cost too much to repair. To that, Baldwin says, "Baloney!"

Others share her view.

Bill Robinson, longtime owner of Gandy Bait & Tackle on the Tampa approach to the bridge, says business dropped 30 to 35 percent when the catwalk was closed to fishing. From that perch in the middle of Old Tampa Bay, an angler could snare speckled trout, sheepshead, mackerel, cobia and more, he says.

"That bridge drew a lot of people from all over."

Robinson, 60, says people now go to the piers at Picnic Island or Ballast Point, but those spots have become too crowded.

Dale Hart of Zephyrhills had fished the catwalk once and, on a recent day, hoped to do so again. But he read in the paper that the bridge was closed and likely to be destroyed. His grandchildren were urging him to go fishing, however, so Hart and his son took them to buy bait and supplies at Robinson's shop. After asking about other locations, Hart, 74, figured they would try fishing from the shore.

Like Robinson and other trail fans, Hart believes that while the bridge may not support cars and trucks, it could be made safe for foot and bicycle traffic.

Commenting that he worked 37 years with the Michigan highway department, Hart says, "there are all kinds of concrete glues and things that could be used for repair work."

The Friendship Trail opened in 1999, the result of a rally by residents to save the span that opened more than 40 years earlier. The Florida Department of Transportation had turned ownership of it over to Hillsborough and Pinellas counties when the new Gandy Bridge opened in 1997.

In 2008, engineers hired by Hillsborough to inspect the trail bridge for possible repairs reported extensive damage, saying that chunks of concrete had fallen away to expose steel tendons, which were rusting and splitting. They concluded that parts of the bridge could collapse, and consultants estimated that even a temporary repair to keep it open for 10 more years would cost $40 million to $50 million.

Tampa resident Neil Cosentino, perhaps the most vocal critic of the plans to remove the bridge, doubts that the damage is that substantial. "I'm sure there is something wrong with it, but not to the state where it would cost $50 million to repair," he says.

Actually, the steel reinforcement rods going through the center of the bridge's concrete support beams are rusted, says county spokesman Steve Valdez.

"What they're having a hard time understanding is that the bridge can fall at any time under its own weight." Therefore, he says, it wouldn't be safe even for foot traffic. No one could use the catwalks because the falling bridge would pull them down.

Hillsborough authorities hope to remove the end sections of the bridge first. That would make it difficult for people to sneak onto the bridge, as happens now. Robinson says he sometimes goes through a hole in the fence to fish on the catwalk, "but you risk getting ticketed for trespassing."

If authorities have to do anything, Robinson would prefer they remove the center of the span and leave strengthened fishing piers on each side of the bay. They could fund it partly, he suggests, by requiring a Gandy Bridge stamp for people who wanted to fish there, just as they would buy a fishing license.

Robinson can't understand why they wouldn't try to preserve such a recreational resource.

"Yeah, there is a cost associated. But look at the asset we have here for St. Pete-Tampa. Why the hell do you live in Tampa? It's surrounded by water," he says. "If we weren't on the water, Tampa would be the armpit of the South."

Philip Morgan can be reached at (813) 226-3435 or pmorgan@sptimes.com.

[iCopyright] 2011 St. Petersburg Times.

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