TAMPA — After more than an hour of impassioned speeches from fishermen, bicyclists, advocates for the disabled and nature lovers, Pinellas County Commissioner Calvin Harris said the Friendship Trail Bridge oversight committee will recommend that the ailing span be repaired.
Around 250 people tried to cram into a meeting room built for 150 at Jan K. Platt Library in South Tampa on Wednesday night to show their support for the 54-year-old landmark.
The crowd listened to a presentation by KCA Engineer David B. Thompson as he laid out four options for the bridge's future.
Option 1 would be to find $15 million in revenue to repair the entire structure, which will grant the bridge about 10 more years of life, he said.
The other options included tearing down the bridge's center leaving catwalks, tearing it all down and adding fishing piers, tearing it down and building piers someplace else and just tearing it down.
Ben Ritter, government relations director for the local Paralyzed Veterans of America chapter, told the committee demolishing the bridge would have to be paid out of county budgets, but there is a federal government grant that could pay for repairs and cost the counties only time in applying.
"Let's grab that tiger by the tail," he said.
The oversight committee took no formal vote Wednesday, but Harris said they have a "consensus'' that Hillsborough and Pinellas counties should try to salvage the entire bridge, and that is what they will recommend to the respective county commissions.
But two members of the Hillsborough County Commission were participating in the committee Wednesday, and they sounded skeptical.
Hillsborough Commissioner Al Higginbotham said he found it troubling that an investment of $15 million would extend the bridge's life only a decade.
"Before Tuesday night's meeting, I'd always heard about the old Gandy bridge, but it was just a slab on concrete to me," he said. "But then I heard all the impassioned stories. … I'm most concerned with, if we spend that money and we still have to tear it down in 10 years because of the DOT's plans."
Hillsborough Commissioner Jim Norman was also concerned about the fiscal responsibility of the project. "When I voted against this project all those years ago, it was because I knew this would happen," he said.
Norman called the project "a ticking time bomb" and said when it was proposed 10 years ago he wanted to approach the state to get the bridge declared a state park, such as the George Crady Bridge Fishing Pier State Park northeast of Jacksonville.
Robbyn Mitchell can be reached at (813) 226-3373 or email@example.com.