GANDY — Boaters may soon face an ominous message as they approach the Friendship Trail Bridge: "Warning! Falling Debris."
Officials are preparing to bolt dozens of warning signs to each side of the 2.6-mile bridge between Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.
But unlike the joggers, fishing enthusiasts and cyclists blocked since November from using the wooden catwalks and paved topside of the bridge, boaters will not be totally prohibited from sailing under the span.
The development heightens doubts among some who want the bridge re-opened, saying it's not as dangerous as engineers have said.
Wally Deal, a South Tampa house painter, suggested the closure is part of a government scheme to keep poorer residents from having free access to the water.
"It's our bay," he said. "This is totally class warfare and we don't have people to defend us."
Frank Miller, executive director of Friendship Trail Corp., said he respects the engineers' opinion, but still believes the bridge should remain open.
"They should post a warning on top and let people go out there. There's a lot of sentiment for that," he said. "But if it's unsafe to walk on, then it's unsafe underneath."
Meg Korakis, a spokeswoman for Pinellas County, said the state Legislature would have to pass a law to close the waters under and near the Friendship Trail Bridge. This was done for the Sunshine Skyway in the wake of the Sept. 11 attack, but that law was repealed last year, she said.
Steve Valdez, a spokesman for the Hillsborough County Public Works Department, said some people are walking on the bridge, ignoring signs already in place and climbing around the barrier fences.
"We can't stop people from going under the bridge any more than we can stop them from getting on the bridge," Valdez said. "There is no way physically to barricade under the bridge."
The U.S. Coast Guard last week issued broadcasts and sent published notices to mariners, advising them to restrict their passages to underneath the center portion of the bridge.
Joe Embres, a Coast Guard waterways manager for the district that includes Tampa Bay, said there are no immediate plans to prevent boating under the bridge. But local and state agencies also have authority to halt marine traffic if it becomes a public safety issue, he said.
Officials from Hillsborough and Pinellas counties are awaiting a permit from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to put up the signs, so no timeline had been set early this week.
Meanwhile, they have drafted the wording: "Warning! Falling Debris" and estimated a total cost of $12,000 to be split between both counties. The size and number of warning signs was still being determined this week, although an early estimate called for placing up to 150 6-by-4-foot signs about every 200 feet along the bridge railing, said Willie Puz, a Hillsborough County spokesman.
Engineers say the 52-year-old bridge is badly deteriorating. Hillsborough County officials are to review the engineering report about the bridge at 1 p.m. Thursday at the Jan Platt Library.
Engineers are "pretty confident" in the conclusions they've reached about the erosion problem, but will undertake a more detailed analysis to be completed by June, Valdez said.
Still, fishermen and other bridge supporters are doubtful.
"You could sit under there for three days and nothing is going to hit you on the head," said Bill Robinson, owner of Gandy Bait & Tackle, 4923 Gandy Blvd., a half mile from the bridge's barricaded east end.
Dozens of boats anchor near the bridge on warm summer nights to catch tarpon, snapper, pompano and other species. Some fishermen scrape barnacles from the support pilings to attract pompano.
Robinson said his business is off 40 percent since the bridge was closed.
"There's no reason that bridge can't handle foot traffic," Robinson said. "If you had regular (car) traffic you might have problems; not foot and bicycle traffic."
The bridge attracts about 500,000 people a year.
Charter boat captain Jim Lemke said he has noticed the bridge's deterioration.
"Over the years that bridge is obviously coming apart," Lemke said. "But all the bridges (in Tampa Bay) are not in the greatest shape. "There's stuff falling off each and every one of them."
Clearwater commercial fisherman Sean Tanner said he won't be discouraged by the signs. "It would tick me off if they tried to stop fishing under the bridge."