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$30-million cost likely dooms saving Friendship Trail Bridge

Desi Kolaxazov, 31, with daughter Dahlia, 1, takes off her skates as the sun sets over the Friendship Trail on Wednesday.

JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times

Desi Kolaxazov, 31, with daughter Dahlia, 1, takes off her skates as the sun sets over the Friendship Trail on Wednesday.

TAMPA — The days of hiking, biking and inline skating across Tampa Bay may be over for good.

Hillsborough County commissioners received an eye-popping cost estimate for repairing the crumbling Friendship Trail Bridge: $30-million.

With local governments looking for ways to save money in the flagging economy, finding support to spend that sum seems unlikely.

Throw in this: The fix would likely last just 10 years.

"This is a little more staggering than I would have ever anticipated," said Commissioner Jim Norman, who predicted this outcome when the former Gandy Bridge span was converted to a trail a decade ago. "I would have loved to keep this as a community icon. But it's more than an icon; it's becoming an anchor."

In Pinellas County, which shares in upkeep of the trail, officials agreed that the price is a bridge too far.

Pinellas County Commission Chairman Calvin Harris, who sits on the Friendship Trail Bridge Committee, had in recent weeks expressed support for finding a way to salvage the span.

No more.

"It's nice and it's important," Harris said, "but $30-million is just not a workable figure for us."

Both governments had been set to split the cost of $4.2-million in repairs slated to begin last month. Then a final inspection turned up trouble. Steel tendons that support the span were eroding quickly, cracking in some places and sending shards of concrete into the bay.

The center span of the bridge, which draws 600,000 users annually, was closed until a closer examination could be made. The results are expected Friday, but Hillsborough Public Works director Bob Gordon said the preliminary price tag should remain the same.

"I don't think the numbers will change much," Gordon said.

Hillsborough commissioners voted unanimously to weigh their options over the next six months. They are attempting to gauge state interest in taking control of the bridge, but that seems unlikely with the budget crisis in Tallahassee.

Pinellas County officials have also put the bridge on a list of possible projects that could be paid for with the federal stimulus money expected from the incoming Obama administration.

In 1997, authorities planned to demolish the bridge and turn it into an artificial reef, with the state providing about $7-million to tear it down. But the community rallied to preserve it for recreation, and the money went for upkeep and amenities, like a fishing boardwalk.

Gordon said consultants estimate the current cost for demolishing the whole bridge would be $13-million.

Demolishing the center span and leaving the ends open to the public for fishing and other activities would cost about $11-million, according to the estimates. But Gordon warned that the lower-elevation spans may be in worse shape than the center because they are closer to the water, so they could require ongoing repairs.

Looking at those kinds of numbers, even a top supporter of the bridge said he understood unwillingness to pay for repairs.

"If I saw $30-million and was a sitting elected official, I would have the same reaction they did," said Frank Miller, executive director of the Friendship Trail Corp., an organization of community supporters.

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.

$30-million cost likely dooms saving Friendship Trail Bridge 12/17/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 23, 2008 3:43pm]
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