The Pinellas County Commission Tuesday endorsed tearing down the historic Beckett Bridge in Tarpon Springs.
Commissioners voted unanimously to move toward replacing the structure with a new drawbridge that would be less expensive to maintain and safer for drivers.
The county will review that decision, along with other options for replacing or repairing the bridge, after a public hearing in February, according to County Administrator Bob LaSala. But Tuesday's vote gives a strong indication of the county's direction and is likely to ignite further debate on an issue that for years has divided Tarpon Springs.
Beckett Bridge, which crosses Whitcomb Bayou, was built in 1924 and is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. About 8,000 vehicles travel the bridge each day, according to the county.
"I agree with and respect the desire to keep a bridge that's old and historic to the community. But safety is so much more important," said Commissioner Susan Latvala, adding the county will be considered responsible if the bridge fails.
Other options include rehabilitating the bridge or leaving it alone and just making repairs as needed. But engineers said those choices would be costly and inefficient, only temporarily delaying the need to replace the bridge with something more modern.
The federal government would finance most of the $15.8 million replacement, so all changes have to be on a federal timeline and approved by several agencies.
Much of Tuesday's discussion focused on the government process itself and was devoted to clearing up commissioner confusion about what they have to decide and when.
Backup materials for Tuesday's agenda said commissioners would make a firm decision about the bridge, which set off alarms for Tarpon Springs City Manager Mark LeCouris and Tarpon City Commissioner David Banther.
They contacted county officials early Tuesday, concerned that the city's residents did not receive an email notice of the meeting — as they had been promised.
Resident Bill Vinson, who lives near the bridge, blasted the county for failing to send out the email, calling the planned February hearing a farce.
Commissioners responded that the county would keep all options on the table.
Ann Venables, a consultant managing the project, said the county has held more than a dozen public meetings about the bridge and has a website to keep people posted on developments. Tarpon Springs' city website links to the county's page.
People working on the project are sensitive to residents' concerns, she said, and are looking to incorporate elements of the current bridge into a replacement.
The county also ruled out the deeply unpopular option of building a fixed bridge, which would have been easier to maintain than a moveable bridge but would have required the county to acquire land from the bridge's neighbors.
Brittany Alana Davis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 850-323-0353.