TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners voted a year ago to delay demolishing the Friendship Trail Bridge to see whether a private company would be willing to rebuild it in exchange for rights to develop near it.
Consultants hired by the county in February concluded that it would be unlikely any redevelopment near the bridge would raise the money needed to demolish and then rebuild a recreational pedestrian bridge over Tampa Bay.
Still, the idea lives on.
Supporters say they have investors, though they are not yet naming them, willing to step forward if the county would only issue formal requests for submissions that don't limit creative ideas.
"We're working with a team of people that has done this type of project before," said Ken Cowart, an architect and one of the leaders of the fight to save the former span of the Gandy Bridge linking South Tampa to Pinellas County.
And so county officials will take another three months to develop a formal request for bids, though some of them expressed skepticism during a recent County Commission meeting that the bridge can be saved.
That skepticism is driven by the belief that there isn't enough room on the Hillsborough County side of the bridge to build something that would make enough money for a company to finance rebuilding a bridge. Further, commissioners are concerned that, even if there were, the bridge will require ongoing upkeep that will fall to taxpayers in the future.
"There is skepticism only because we engaged a consultant with competence in that area," county administrator Mike Merrill said, "and they were not able to give us any comfort that there would be parties interested in putting together private partners that would be able to take government out of the equation."
Those who want to save the bridge say they understand such skepticism. Depending on what needs to be done to save the bridge, a deal to pay for rebuilding it may be a challenge.
But at least pose the question and see what comes back, they say.
"On the question of is it possible versus likely? I wouldn't put it in the likely category yet," said community activist Kevin Thurman, a proponent of salvaging the span. "If this becomes a proposal that would be a money-suck to (government), it will not be pursued."
The former roadway was built for car traffic in 1956, and closed for that purpose in 1997 after a new bridge was built. The state Department of Transportation set aside $7 million for its demolition.
But a group of civic activists rallied to save the old bridge as an over-the-water recreational park that became popular for joggers, in-line skaters, bicyclists and fishermen. Pinellas and Hillsborough county governments received the demolition money for upkeep.
Engineers started noticing worrisome cracks in lower parts of the span, ultimately closing it to any traffic in 2008. They eventually sought bids for its demolition, getting one from a company saying it could do the work for about $5.2 million.
Then a new group of civic activists stepped forward to say new bridge construction advances could allow the bridge to be refurbished or rebuilt entirely for pedestrian traffic.
Hillsborough County hired the firm Parsons Brinkerhoff to analyze the feasibility. It concluded that it was unlikely a company would be willing to pay for the estimated $25 million demolition and construction costs for the bridge in exchange for development rights.
Among other arguments, boosters for saving the Friendship Trail say the analysis was confined to the Hillsborough side of the bridge. But Pinellas County has made it clear that it wants its half of the demolition money from the state spent on that purpose only. Merrill said he has reconfirmed that position in recent months.
Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3387.