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Hillsborough approves money to demolish part of Friendship Trail Bridge

Friendship Trail Bridge has been closed for safety reasons since December 2008, but people have been sneaking onto it.

STEPHEN J. CODDINGTON | Times

Friendship Trail Bridge has been closed for safety reasons since December 2008, but people have been sneaking onto it.

TAMPA — A longtime symbolic and recreational link between Hillsborough and Pinellas counties is officially slated to be broken.

Hillsborough County commissioners Wednesday approved splitting the $4.4 million cost to tear down portions of the crumbling Friendship Trail Bridge, with some expressing disappointment as they did.

"I think this is a difficult decision for many of us," Commissioner Kevin Beckner said. "It's just so hard to see that connection going away."

Newly elected Commissioner Sandy Murman called the decision, and the resulting loss of the popular recreational bridge, "agonizing."

"As much as I personally hate to see this bridge go, I think I have to look out for the safety of our citizens and for boaters," she said.

Plans call for tearing down and removing the ends of the bridge first, with work to begin possibly by the end of the year, and a much smaller expanse closer to the middle. The vote Wednesday commits Hillsborough County to pay half of the cost, with Pinellas County paying for the rest.

Pinellas commissioners have not taken a formal vote, but officials have acknowledged the need to tear down the bridge.

Hillsborough's money will come from property taxes originally set aside for transportation.

Both local governments must still find an estimated $7 million it will cost to tear down the remainder of the bridge, which will stay standing until they do.

"We don't have enough money in our budget to do the total demolition," said John Lyons, interim public works director for Hillsborough County.

The parts to be torn down, about 2,200 feet on each side of the bay, are generally closest to the water. Those areas are fenced off, but county officials say people have been sneaking past, creating a potential danger to themselves. Tearing down the ends first helps eliminate the hazard.

The span was built in 1956 for cars. The state Department of Transportation turned over ownership to Pinellas and Hills­borough counties in 1997 after the current spans of the Gandy Bridge beside it opened.

Residents rallied to save the old span for recreation, persuading local government to spend the $7 million then set aside for demolition for the conversion. Fishing boardwalks were built alongside it and decorative lighting installed along the rechristened Friendship Trail Bridge, which lured joggers, bicyclists, anglers and inline skaters.

An estimated 600,000 people visited the bridge annually.

During inspections in 2008 for anticipated repairs of the bridge, engineers hired by the county found widespread and alarming decay. Chunks of concrete had fallen, exposing steel tendons that were rusting away and splitting apart.

The consultants concluded that parts of the bridge were in danger of collapse. They have since estimated that costs for what would be, at best, a temporary repair could run from $40 million to $50 million.

Friendship Trail Bridge was closed in December 2008, never to reopen.

Times staff writer David DeCamp contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or varian@sptimes.com.

Hillsborough approves money to demolish part of Friendship Trail Bridge 01/05/11 [Last modified: Thursday, January 6, 2011 7:29am]
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