While Hillsborough County commissioners continue to debate the future of the Friendship Trail Bridge, Pinellas County has had enough of waffling.
Pinellas County commissioners want to transfer their stake in the bridge to Hillsborough in an attempt to wash their hands of the project and back out before demolition costs increase.
"We're concerned that since they (Hillsborough) have chosen to delay action on this, the cost of demolition may go up," said Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala. "We don't want to be stuck with increased costs because of their delay."
To relinquish their stake in the bridge, Pinellas commissioners took a unanimous vote approving the move on Tuesday. However, the county also needs Hillsborough's blessing, which will not come easily, if at all.
On Wednesday, Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill said the county will not take sole possession of the bridge. "Until this County Commission makes a decision on the best option moving forward, we're not in a position to accept the transfer of the ownership, liability and operating costs of their side of the bridge," Merrill said.
Initially scheduled for demolition in 1997, the former Gandy Bridge span was given a second life, renamed the Friendship Trail Bridge and opened to pedestrians, bicyclists, and fishermen. It drew about 600,000 visitors a year but was closed in 2008 after engineers found that big concrete blocks were breaking off and falling into the bay.
In June, the Hillsborough commission voted to delay the bridge's demolition, giving the board time to consider a slight tax increase to pay for its reconstitution. One proposal backed by a group of residents calls for the county to keep the bridge's existing piers, while replacing its horizontal spans with pre-fab metal sections.
But in August, the Hillsborough commission chose not to vote on the tax increase, postponing the question of the bridge's future yet again.
On Tuesday, Pinellas commissioners agreed to pay Hillsborough $515,000 — on top of $2 million it has already sent — to cover its half of the estimated $5.2 million demotion costs.
Commissioners are concerned that if Hillsborough does eventually decide to dismantle the bridge, the new cost estimates will be higher than the original projections. Pinellas does have to help pay for the demolition costs, LaSala said, but by officially offering to withdraw its stake in the bridge, the county is "limiting" that obligation.
Anna M. Phillips can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779.