Sue Carlton: The bridge and the believers

Here is my take on the fate of the old Gandy Bridge, reborn as a spectacular recreational park because of a bunch of true believers, and now facing demolition: If only.

The sadly padlocked Friendship Trail Bridge that stretches between Hillsborough and Pinellas counties is old and dangerous, the engineers say. And so its days are numbered.

But wait — the bridge just got a reprieve, if not from the governor then at least from the Hillsborough County Commission. The newest crop of bridge believers won it a 30-day stay, until May 2, to convince everyone it's worth saving. Again.

Worth saving?

If you are against the Friendship Trail Bridge in concept, you probably were never lucky enough to be on it, or maybe you just don't like to go outside. After it reopened as a 2.6-mile, no-cars-allowed park in 1999, we came 600,000 strong yearly to walk, run, skate and bike the bridge. We were out there with birds, boats, jets, waves and sky, a city behind you and another ahead. It was uniquely us.

Then came realities of age and economy. In 2008, we showed up to find our bridge locked up tight. Engineers poked and prodded and pronounced it a danger. Cost to fix it: up to $50 million, not an easy price tag for politicians to swallow. Hillsborough County spokesman Steve Valdez explains it like this: "The bones in that bridge, the steel strands inside that concrete, have broken. They're gone. That bridge is being held up under its own weight just by concrete sticking it together, and that concrete is chipping away every day."

Then he says what everyone says, that it's a shame. "No one wanted to see the bridge come down. No one." Proof: They spend thousands keeping the public out, because people tear down those fences as fast as they go up.

But hope springs eternal, and in no one more than activist Neil Cosentino. One of the original group that pushed for the Friendship Trail, Cosentino scoffs at those engineers. "Keystone consultants," he calls them. He and a group of 20 bridge believers are determined and scrambling to save it. (When I ask the group's name, member Ken Cowart, an architect, says with only 30 days, they haven't had time to call themselves anything.)

So they have their own engineers examining the belly of the bridge. They believe only a part of it needs to come down. They're talking public-private partnership, vendors, developers and an all-out business plan. "Nobody's asking: Why do we need to save this thing?'' says Julia Freeman, a bridge believer who is in marketing and communications. "Everybody's asking, okay, how do we do it?"

And who doesn't want a miracle?

Frank Miller, once head of the Friendship Trail Corp., wouldn't mind one. But he has been through the reports that closed the bridge he loved to bike. "I wish them success, but personally, I don't see a single chance," he says. "I believe the professional engineers, and having tried to raise funds, I know how difficult it is."

Commissioner Mark Sharpe sounds a similar note that is part hope, part reality: "We're going to listen, but it's going to be tough."

Hopefuls talk of the Walkway Over the Hudson and its half-million annual visitors. Naysayers point to a Minneapolis recreational bridge recently closed when a cable support broke.

Can our bridge be saved? My head says it's a goner. My heart?

If only.

Sue Carlton: The bridge and the believers 04/13/12 [Last modified: Friday, April 13, 2012 8:19pm]

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