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Can the old Gandy be saved once more?

Those naysaying non-believers — the ones who looked at an old bridge and could not see all the promise in that concrete connecting two cities — might have called it our own bridge to nowhere.

Obsolete, they said, when the old span of the Gandy Bridge stretching between Tampa and St. Pete was about to be demolished.

White elephant. Potential money pit. Not worth saving.

Blow it up, tear it down, whatever.

But others saw something more. They saw potential. They saw runners, cyclists, walkers and strollers from both sides of the bay who would be eager to use a car-free bridge-turned-park. So came the citizen-driven effort and the bicounty commitment, and the old Gandy Bridge was saved and transformed.

Fast-forward nearly a decade, and 600,000 people annually lace up their sneakers to hit 2.6 miles of the renamed Friendship Trail Bridge. Bay waters below, planes from Tampa International Airport arcing overhead, panoramic views of our towns all around — call this one a success, popularity-wise.

Except now the old bridge is corroding and dropping concrete chunks. And it's going to cost. Just like those naysayers said it would.

Inspectors found dangerous deterioration, and barricades went up last week. To the dismay of those of us who love it, the bridge is closed indefinitely.

Can the old Gandy be saved? Again?

Because now we are in a grim economy of layoffs, cutbacks and closings. Now we are in times of cold hard choices when it comes to government spending.

In the bridge's corner is its success and its unique appeal. A lot of us use it. A lot of us like it. It has improved, with bathrooms, bike paths on the way in, and benches, both in place and scheduled to be coming soon. If you have been there, you know what a gem it is.

"It's everything I wanted it to be," says Frank Miller, executive director of the Friendship Trail Corp. and one of those early dreamers.

Even some of its staunchest supporters may not be able to push for it if the cost is beyond high. Still, there is hope — guarded, tentative hope. Supporters hope its designation under official Florida Greenways and Trails could help get grants. Public support could push officials to search for creative ways to pay.

It's all about the numbers. The extent of the damage and the cost to fix it are expected to be known in a few weeks. That should be weighed against the cost to knock it down — $7-million was set aside back when the bridge first faced demolition.

Another sobering question will be how long a fix will last before the bridge needs repairs again.

The naysayers have a right to their I-told-you-so's — as long as they come with an honest effort to balance the pros and cons of saving something that works.

And if the worst happens? If reality bites?

The older of the two Gandy spans currently carrying car traffic is next to be obsolete, like the Friendship Trail was, like all of us eventually. Transportation officials say that span, built in 1975, is in good shape for now. But bridges are said to have a life of about 50 years.

Should it come to that, "I hope someone will say, 'There used to be a recreational trail,' " says Miller. " 'Let's do it again.'

"I hope I'm around to see it."

Can the old Gandy be saved once more? 11/11/08 [Last modified: Friday, November 14, 2008 10:22am]
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