Friendship Trail Bridge demolition delayed so preservation options can be explored

Officials want more time to consider options for the old Gandy span.
Advocates say they can raise funds for proposed upgrades to make the Friendship Trail Bridge usable for recreation. A Vision Beyond Demolition
Advocates say they can raise funds for proposed upgrades to make the Friendship Trail Bridge usable for recreation.A Vision Beyond Demolition
Published June 27 2012
Updated June 28 2012

TAMPA — The Friendship Trail Bridge got another reprieve Wednesday when Hillsborough County commissioners delayed a decision on a demolition contract.

The hiatus, commissioners said, will provide time to evaluate options that include preserving or rebuilding the span as a linear park over the water.

They also want to review how much of the bridge to tear down, with preservation supporters saying the highest spans in the best condition should be saved to cut down on rebuilding costs.

Commissioner Kevin Beckner said the board needs to decide whether to pursue a referendum asking voters to raise the property tax slightly for park improvements.

County Administrator Mike Merrill has floated the option of raising the property tax 0.217 mills to pay for $80 million of park projects. The tax would last for 10 years and cost the owner of a $165,000 home with a $50,000 homestead exemption about $25 annually.

That tax income's projects would include rebuilding the Friendship Trail Bridge, an aging expanse of the former Gandy Bridge.

Advocates for saving the bridge emerged in April before a previously scheduled vote on its demolition. A group of young professionals called for allowing partial demolition to move forward while keeping support posts for the existing bridge surface.

The idea involves replacing the current concrete deck with metal platforms that could be used for biking, jogging, inline skating and other recreation.

Engineers hired by the county found lower spans of the bridge cracking and some pilings and support posts in bad shape.

The county has been evaluating with preservation advocates the possibility of demolishing most or all of the bridge and replacing it with a narrower metal span to accommodate recreation.

Advocates believe they can raise part of the estimated $28 million cost through donations. Merrill's proposal doesn't bank on that happening, and instead suggests asking voters whether they support raising property taxes to pay for it and other park projects.

Wednesday's unanimous vote canceled awarding a contract for demolition that was expected to cost $5.3 million. The county staff had asked for permission to demolish the entire bridge. The demolition issue will likely be tabled until commissioners decide whether to pursue a tax hike referendum.

"If we voted to tear that down today, we're putting the cart before the horse," Beckner said.

But the delay likely means that bidders will withdraw offers and new bids for demolition will have to be sought, raising the risk of a higher price tag to tear it down.

"I think it's worth the risk and the effort," said Commissioner Mark Sharpe.

A rebuilt recreational bridge across the bay is not just good for residents but is the sort of amenity that encourages entrepreneurs to start a business nearby, he added.

The former Gandy Bridge was built for motorists in 1956, linking Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. It closed in 1997, and the state Department of Transportation set aside $7 million for its demolition.

As now, a group of residents rallied to save it for recreation, and part of the money meant for tearing it down went toward sprucing it up for that purpose. Supporters said they would raise money for its upkeep but collected little.

In 2008, inspectors closed the bridge after finding large sections of its underside crumbling.

This time will be different, the new friends of the bridge said, adding that they will attract corporate donors.

Until now, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties have shared responsibility for the bridge. In recent weeks, Pinellas commissioners have said they will contribute no more than their half of the demolition work, expressing disinterest in postponing a decision any longer.

Hillsborough commissioners have until September to decide whether to put the issue on the November ballot.

In other action, the board also voted unanimously to pass a new noise ordinance that will allow law enforcement to charge people for excessively loud music or otherwise disrupting the peace with sound.

The ordinance, sought by Commissioner Al Higginbotham, replaces an earlier law that a judge deemed too vague on what constitutes illegal loudness.