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Pinellas close to funding demolition of Friendship Trail bridge

The Friendship Trail Bridge, built almost 60 years ago, was shut as a walkway in 2008 because of structural problems.

STEPHEN J. CODDINGTON | Times (2011)

The Friendship Trail Bridge, built almost 60 years ago, was shut as a walkway in 2008 because of structural problems.

Pinellas County commissioners are poised Tuesday to earmark the final funds to demolish the Friendship Trail.

The $515,000 from the Penny for Pinellas money would be sent to Hillsborough County, which shares ownership of the bridge. It would be added to the $2 million Pinellas has already sent to Hillsborough to pay for half of the demolition cost. Hillsborough will provide the rest of the estimated $5.2 million.

But Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch said the vote won't automatically doom the bridge because it only puts the money in place to use once a bid is awarded.

"It doesn't end the prospect of the Friendship Trail Bridge being saved, but it is down to the ninth inning (and there are) two outs," Welch said. "If everything works out, there's still a possibility it can be saved."

Welch said he met Friday with two backers of a recent plan to save the bridge. The two are part of a group that submitted a proposal to Hillsborough earlier this month. Their idea is to transform the bridge into a park over the water, with amenities such as ice cream kiosks and gardens.

Welch said he liked the concept, but he's not sure it can be pulled off.

The two are hoping, he said, that the company that has submitted the winning demolition bid will hold that $5.2 million price firm for six months while a feasibility study of the park idea is completed. That way, the counties won't risk spending more because the demolition price went up while waiting.

"The county wouldn't be at risk," Welch said.

Welch said the biggest hurdle to transforming the bridge would be the financing. The initial construction cost is about $19.5 million. The group says it can raise about $13 million of that from donations and wants governments to supply the rest.

Welch is doubtful because past efforts to raise money from the private sector to save the bridge have failed.

"It's all going to come down to dollars," Welch said. "I'm not optimistic they can meet all the challenges but they still have a small" amount of time.

Pinellas County Commissioner Neil Brickfield agreed with Welch, saying he likes the concept but doubts it can be done.

"They've got some good ideas, but I don't see where all the money's coming from either to build and maintain this," Brickfield said. "I would love to see their vision of the Friendship Trail come to reality. I just don't see it happening in this environment without a lot of government money that we don't have."

Brickfield said the counties also have to worry about maintaining the trail. That may be money neither county can afford.

While Welch and Brickfield were impressed with the concept, Pinellas County staff members were less enthusiastic.

Staff members say that, among other things, the plan fails to protect all the pilings from corrosion. They also say the group severely underestimated some costs.

They conclude in their recommendation to Pinellas commissioners: "Pinellas County staff considers the total bid (of about $5.2 million) to be a very competitive and responsive price for demolition of the entire facility. As such, we support Hillsborough County's plans for demolition of the bridge structure, and consider it to be the most fiscally responsible action plan from an engineering and liability perspective."

The bridge, which spans the bay at Gandy Boulevard, was built almost 60 years ago and has lasted past its 50-year life expectancy.

The Florida Department of Transportation closed the bridge in 1995 because it had become unsafe for vehicles. The DOT wanted to demolish the center portion and leave the remainder as fishing piers. Four years later, Pinellas and Hillsborough took over the bridge and opened it to pedestrian traffic.

In 2008, the counties shut the bridge after a state inspection revealed structural problems with the pylons and consultants warned that it was so degraded it might collapse. Engineers also said the bridge's steel tendons are rusting and chunks of concrete occasionally fall into the bay. That puts boaters at risk of injury, they say.

Engineers looked at it again in 2010 and estimated it would cost about $48 million to repair. Both commissions voted to demolish it.

Since then, several groups have tried to persuade commissioners that they could save the bridge by raising money through donations. But efforts have fallen short. The newest group says it could succeed because it plans to transform the structure.

Anne Lindberg can be reached at alindberg@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8450.

Pinellas close to funding demolition of Friendship Trail bridge 05/20/12 [Last modified: Thursday, May 24, 2012 1:03pm]
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