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Maybe the Friendship Trail can be a bridge to better times

Does it seem like we're getting awfully used to losing things around here?

Library hours. Bus routes.

Scariest of all, jobs — gone in the face of a grim economy.

So at a time when nothing seems safe from the scalpel, is it possible, even thinkable, that we could talk seriously about saving the Friendship Trail Bridge again?

I know, I know.

Even those of us utterly devoted to the bridge-turned-cycling-running-walking-hiking trail that stretches across the water between Pinellas and Hillsborough counties were stunned speechless at the potential price tag.

But first, a little history.

A span of the old Gandy Bridge that was built back in 1956 was saved from demolition more than a decade ago by a group of forward-thinking folks who wanted to see it reborn as a pedestrian park.

Or maybe that should be parkway.

Renamed the Friendship Trail Bridge, it opened in 1999 as a 2.6-mile span running next to the regular car-traffic bridge and ferrying enthusiastic bikers, walkers and skaters instead.

If you've been there, you've probably loved it, all that wind, water and great wide open. People trained for marathons and pedaled back and forth between counties. They power-walked and in-line skated and strolled babies as boats passed below and jets arced overhead.

But the Friendship Trail Bridge aged, as old bridges (and the rest of us) inevitably will. Support beams cracked, metal rusted and chunks of concrete threatened to fall into the water.

All of which, we were told, made it unsafe for the 600,000 of us who were hitting that pavement annually.

And so last year, they closed our bridge, to the dismay of everyone who kept showing up in their running togs. Then they told us the cost of fixing it would be $30 million.

Thirty mil!

Even the most fervent supporters — those who saw from the start the unique amenity this would be for Tampa Bay — had a hard time arguing to spend that kind of cash.

Seemed our bridge was sunk.

But wait. Don't give the old Gandy last rites just yet.

Consultants hired by both counties now say it would cost half that, about $15 million, to fix the bridge for recreational use.

Actually, that's $7 million to fix it, $4 million for ongoing repairs and $4 million for contingencies.

That $15 million would buy the bridge 10 more years of use, engineers estimated.

And the cost to demolish it outright?

Thirteen million.

That's sure some interesting math when you look at that slimmed-down price tag: $13 million to knock it down, $15 million to save it. And energetic exploration of any state and federal funds available could only help us hope.

Yes, even that cost is going to be a tough sell to local politicians and taxpayers in the current climate. And, yes, that would leave us with the decision, again, of what to do with the old Gandy 10 years later.

But that's going to be the trick in this economy, isn't it? How not to give up everything. How not to throw out the baby with the bathwater, or maybe that's throw out the bridge with the budget.

Things pass, even tough economic times, and one day we'll be looking around to see what's left and what we lost.

It may turn out some of them were worth saving.

Maybe the Friendship Trail can be a bridge to better times 05/29/09 [Last modified: Friday, May 29, 2009 7:12pm]
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