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Help hard to find for failing Friendship Trail Bridge

Friendship Trail Park Ranger Tom Beams locks the fence in November on the western side of the bridge because it is falling apart and needs costly repairs. The trail between Tampa and St. Petersburg has been used by nearly 600,000 people a year.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Friendship Trail Park Ranger Tom Beams locks the fence in November on the western side of the bridge because it is falling apart and needs costly repairs. The trail between Tampa and St. Petersburg has been used by nearly 600,000 people a year.

Nine years ago, 3,000 people joined hands above Tampa Bay and marked the opening of the Friendship Trail Bridge, which became a draw for anglers, runners, cyclists and in-line skaters.

Bridge devotees lost their beloved link between Tampa and St. Petersburg in early November after engineers discovered that chunks of the span were falling into Tampa Bay, a finding that prompted a swift closure.

Salvaged by the intervention of Pinellas and Hillsborough counties a decade ago, the bridge's fate is again uncertain. Now strapped, those same governments lack the cash to make the bridge safe for public use.

"The timing could not be worse," said Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch. "I just don't know where you would come up with money for that kind of unexpected expenditure."

Engineers hired by Hillsborough County have been inspecting the bridge to determine just how pricey repairs will be. The job was to have been done by now, but may take a few weeks longer, said Steve Valdez, a spokesman for Hillsborough's Public Works Department.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Al Higginbotham said local funds for any significant bridge repair are not available. He said maybe federal money can be found, because he's certain the state, facing its own massive budget shortfall, won't be able to help anytime soon.

The bridge was built for car traffic in 1956 and closed in 1997 when the current Gandy Bridge opened. After community leaders and elected officials campaigned to save the bridge, the state gave the span to Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, along with $7-million set aside for demolition.

The counties were saddled with ownership and the burden of paying for any future repairs or demolition. The $7-million was used to install catwalks and lighting and for maintenance of the Friendship Trail.

Pinellas officials estimate it would cost $10-million to demolish the bridge today. And although the engineers have yet to produce a final price for repairs, elected leaders on both sides of the bay say they believe the cost will likely be out of reach, at least in the short term.

"We knew it was going to come back and bite us someday," said Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala, "and we just put a Band-Aid on it and here it is."

Yet some officials, stressing the value of the bridge to the nearly 600,000 who used it annually, are determined to find the money needed to return the bridge to the public, even as they acknowledge the scarcity of local dollars.

Hillsborough Commissioner Rose Ferlita said she planned to ask U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor for help. And Pinellas County Commission Chairman Calvin Harris said he hopes to explore state, federal or private funds to save the Friendship Trail, but has yet to identify any likely pots of money.

"Saving it might mean two years down the road or three years down the road," Harris said, "but we intend to put some things in motion to see if we can save the bridge."

Frank Miller, executive director of the nonprofit Friendship Trail Corp., which raises funds and advocates for the bridge, said he wants to know not only how much the repairs will be, but how much time those dollars will buy.

If $20-million would get you only five years of additional public use, Miller said even he could not support fixing the bridge. But if $6-million could get you 20 years, the picture changes, he said.

Miller, who pushed to save the bridge from demolition in the late 1990s, has an eye toward the future. In 2025, the eastbound lane of the current Gandy Bridge will reach the end of its lifespan, he said, and can become the new Friendship Trail Bridge.

"The issue is going to be whether we are going to have a Friendship Trail Bridge between now and then or not," he said.

Will Van Sant can be reached at vansant@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4166.

fast facts

Bridge closure

Pedestrians, cyclists and anglers will be allowed to use roughly 2,000 feet at both ends of the bridge, but the elevated middle portion will be off limits.

Boaters also will be banned from the area under the bridge that was closed, except for the channel.

Help hard to find for failing Friendship Trail Bridge 11/30/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 2, 2008 7:47pm]
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