ST. PETE BEACH — Construction of an 80-foot-tall, fixed-span bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway along the Pinellas Bayway will begin in January.
The state announced the long debated and long delayed project last week as part of nearly $1 billion in projects included in Gov. Rick Scott's Florida Transportation Vision for the 21st Century, a statewide effort to create construction jobs and boost the Florida economy.
City Manager Mike Bonfield and Mayor Steve McFarlin met with DOT officials several months ago to push for a decision on the bridge construction and stress its importance to St. Pete Beach residents and businesses.
Bonfield said the new span, unencumbered by frequent drawbridge openings, should encourage tourists and Tierra Verde residents alike to venture onto the island more frequently, a potential boon to the city's businesses.
"We have the most beautiful beaches in the county. The new bridge will make it much easier for people to come here and will be wonderful for the shops and restaurants on Pass-a-Grille," said Commissioner Bev Garnett.
In purely safety terms, the fixed-span bridge will provide residents with a quicker evacuation route off the island in the event of a hurricane.
Traffic frequently backs up, particularly in the summer when the drawbridge opens several times an hour.
The state first proposed replacing the bridge in 2001 with work scheduled to begin in 2003.
Opposition to the bridge's design and funding shortfalls caused repeated delays. Residents on both sides of the bridge were concerned with the location and height of the replacement bridge, as well as the potential impact on navigation and the environment.
"The advancement of this project is a result of the excellent bidding environment and the availability of funds generated by toll revenues," explained Kris Carson, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Transportation Tampa office.
Funding will be supplemented with money diverted from a rehabilitation project she said is no longer necessary because of the new bridge construction.
In addition to building a new bridge, the DOT plans to reconstruct and resurface a portion of State Road 682 from Gulf Boulevard to the west toll plaza. The project includes signs, lighting and landscaping for the entire project length, approximately 1.3 miles.
The city recently was awarded a $100,000 DOT grant to landscape the west side of the bridge causeway.
Bonfield said when that money will be used will depend largely on the state's construction plans.
The Bayway itself, as well as the original bridge, was built in the early 1960s at a cost of $7.5 million to link St. Petersburg with Fort De Soto Park and the Gulf Beaches, as well as open up new areas for residential development. The project was financed with toll-backed bonds.
"Another piece of good news is the tolls will not be increased to pay for the bridge; we will be paying the same tolls as we do today," said Garnett.
The state originally planned to increase tolls to $1.25 along both the east and west portions of the Bayway.
St. Pete Beach residents now pay a 50-cent toll or purchase a $50 annual pass to get off the island via the Bayway. Westbound traffic from Tierra Verde does not have to pay a toll to enter the beach city.
Once completed, the opening under the bridge will rise 66 feet, 3 inches over the Intracoastal Waterway, which eliminates the need for a drawbridge.
About 800 St. Pete Beach homes and 1,500 people living in Don CeSar Place and on the northern end of Vina Del Mar will be most affected by construction, according to Bonfield.
Once construction of the eastbound lanes, located south of the existing bridge, is completed, all traffic will be re-routed to the new bridge. Next, the existing bridge will be demolished to allow construction of the westbound lanes of the new bridge. The project is expected to be completed by the spring of 2015.