TARPON SPRINGS — It's a historic bridge, one of the oldest in the country. And Tarpon Springs has a special affinity for old and historic things.
So when a Pinellas County engineer took to a lectern in Tarpon Springs last week to explain the benefits of replacing the 89-year-old Beckett Bridge, some residents would hear none of it.
"It boggles my mind; people come down here and they love what we have and after a few years they want changes," said Anita Protos, a former mayor.
Built with timber and later mostly replaced with concrete, the bridge on Riverside Drive — which crosses over Whitcomb Bayou — required major mechanical and electrical repairs in 1979, 1998 and 2011, disrupting traffic and costing millions of dollars each time.
The bridge is also considered unsafe for fire trucks, paramedics and school buses, which are supposed to take alternate routes.
Engineer Tony Hornik told Tarpon Springs commissioners Tuesday that he wasn't advocating a specific course of action. Rather, he was updating them on the facts that county commissioners will consider Oct. 22.
The county — not the city — will pick from the following options:
• Leave the bridge alone and continue making repairs as needed.
• Rehabilitate the bridge without widening it or putting in sidewalks ($9.5 million).
• Rehabilitate the bridge with sidewalks ($12.5 million).
• Replace the existing bridge with another drawbridge ($15.8 million).
One previously discussed option — a non-moveable bridge with a 28-foot vertical clearance — is not recommended because it would restrict boat access to the bayou and require the county to acquire land from the bridge's neighbors, Hornik said.
Under the rehabilitation option, the bridge still probably wouldn't last past 2038, Hornik said.
Built in 1924, the bridge is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. But it was designed to last only 50 years and carry lighter loads, Hornik said.
Any replacement would look similar to the existing bridge, he said, and could retain some of the original historic elements — including, possibly, the big steel gears.
"If there is anything we can salvage that can be a part of the aesthetics or reflect the history of the bridge, we'll definitely try to incorporate it into the new design," he said.
If county commissioners approve a new bridge, funding would come from federal and state grants with construction slated for 2020. Engineers would create graphics of the proposed design, which could be critiqued in a public hearing tentatively scheduled for mid January.
The Florida Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration must also approve all changes.
County Commissioner Susan Latvala, who represents the district that includes Tarpon Springs, said she hasn't decided how she'll vote and will listen to residents' opinions during the coming weeks.
"It really is important what the community thinks, the people who live around there and use the road," she said. "Then you look at the cost and think, 'Could you justify doing this rather than that?' "
Although residents who favor preserving Beckett Bridge have perhaps been most vocal, those who submitted comments during a January meeting on the issue overwhelmingly favored replacing the current bridge.
That's the position of Tarpon Springs resident Daniel Cullu, who said he crosses Beckett Bridge daily and sees bicyclists and people in wheelchairs struggling with the lack of sidewalks.
"I apologize," he said, with a nod to the preservationists. "It's not an enjoyable travel."
Brittany Alana Davis can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4155.