How do you feel about a $35 million bike path across the new Howard Frankland bridge?

The overhaul to the Howard Frankland Bridge includes a bike and pedestrian path. Is it worth it?
The proposed makeover of the Howard Frankland Bridge includes a bike and pedestrian path. (Times files)
The proposed makeover of the Howard Frankland Bridge includes a bike and pedestrian path. (Times files)
Published November 16
Updated November 16

You’ve likely heard that the Howard Frankland Bridge is about to undergo a major makeover.

The plan includes a bike and pedestrian path attached to a new eight-lane span. Think of it as a ninth lane, 12 to 14 feet wide, separated from traffic by a concrete wall and some fencing.

Walkers, runners and riders could get some exercise, enjoy the sea breeze and watch dolphins rise from the bay. Diehards could use it to commute.Sounds fantastic, a great way to capitalize on one of our natural assets. It sells itself, as the saying goes. At least until you see the price tag:

$35 million.

No way! some of you might feel like yelling. Not so a bunch of outdoorsy types can get an endorphin rush or ogle the local marine fauna.

That’s a reasonable response. After all, it’s our money. I had a similar reaction, and I’m inclined to like bike paths. When middle age allows, I’m an avid cyclist, often putting in more than 5,000 miles a year. I once raced the length of Florida on a mountain bike. I’d likely use the Howard Frankland trail.

But $35 million for less than 7 miles?

To get my head around the cost, I call Lucas Cruse. He’s St. Petersburg’s bicycle and pedestrian coordinator. If anyone can make a case for spending the money, it will be him.

First, he dismisses the notion that any single public investment has to benefit everyone in a given region, or at least most of them, an old canard trotted out by the “No” to everything crowd.

“It’s like saying, ‘I’ll never drive on State Road 54 in Pasco County, so why would we fund that?’ ” he says. “We’d never build anything that way.”

Agreed, but why this project?

He dives in by saying that the reason the trail was added to the design was that the regional planning organizations on both sides of the bay requested it. They see it as the least-expensive shot at building a “once in a lifetime” trail. It’s incorporated into the $814 million bridge overhaul. If we try to add it after the bridge is built, it will cost way more, likely beyond our ability to pay for it.

He goes on to explain that the near-term vision is to use additional paths to connect the trail to the Tampa side of the Courtney Campbell Causeway trail. Eventually, it could link up on both sides of the bay to the Gandy Bridge, which will need a new span soon, one that will likely include its own pedestrian trail.

He reminds me about the Friendship Trail Bridge, which ran parallel to the Gandy Bridge. More than 600,000 people a year used that trail before engineers decided it was unsafe and needed to be razed. Think of the potential of having three premier over-water trails linked together, he says.

“Hell yeah!” screams my inner cyclist, though the taxpayer in my head still has his arms crossed, brow furrowed.

Cruse, to his credit, seems realistic about how many commuters would use the trail, even though it would connect two of our busiest economic hubs — the WestShore district in Tampa and Carillon in Pinellas. Instead, he describes it as a “major recreational amenity” that will draw residents and tourists for decades. Cycling has become a big draw. It’s the new golf, he says.

There’s even talk of building the surface of the trail lower than the interstate, which would cut down on the noise and create some shade.

“If we want to attract new businesses, if we want to attract young people, we have to be exploiting the things that make us unique,” he says. “For our area, that’s the water and the landscape and the climate.”

Cruse paints an appealing picture, and gets extra points for his mix of passion and candor. Still, I’m torn. I keep seeing that $35 million figure.

For more perspective, I visit the Courtney Campbell Causeway trail, a similar over-the-bay project that opened a few years ago. It’s a Tuesday morning, sunny and cool. A cyclist or walker glides by every minute or so.

The ones I speak with all praise the trail, though that’s expected since they hauled themselves out there to get some exercise or saunter along chatting with friends. They say there is nothing like it in the area. Few ever knew, or remember, that the 9.5-mile trail cost $24 million.

Al Goldstrohm’s regular 25-mile cycling route takes him from his home in Clearwater, across the Courtney Campbell trail and back again. The affable 77-year-old Pennsylvania snowbird likes the idea of a trail along the Howard Frankland.

Would you use it?

“Sure, it sounds like fun.”

How much do you think it will cost?

“Millions?”

How does $35 million sound?

Pause.

“Well …”

He rubs his hand on his cheek and glances at the sky.

“... that’s a lot of money.”

Indeed.

Contact Graham Brink at [email protected] Follow @GrahamBrink.

The Howard Frankland Bridge project

To see the latest Florida Department of Transportation plan for the bridge, including dates for when it could get underway, click here. The FDOT website for the project can be found here.

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