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Some Pinellas officials oppose stimulus money to save Friendship Trail Bridge

ST. PETERSBURG — Top Pinellas County officials oppose a plan to save Friendship Trail Bridge, pushing the future of the Tampa Bay pedestrian crossing into choppy waters.

An oversight committee has asked Pinellas and Hillsborough counties to support requesting at least $20 million in federal stimulus money to repair the bridge's structural problems. The popular recreation venue was closed for safety reasons in November.

The Hillsborough County Commission voted 5-2 this month to ask for the money. Pinellas commissioners will decide at today's 3 p.m. meeting in Clearwater.

They should vote no because of the limited lifetime of a repair, said Pete Yauch, Pinellas' public works and transportation director, who said he felt a bit like a "grinch."

It's unlikely Hillsborough will seek the money if Pinellas doesn't pursue it, Hillsborough administrator Pat Bean said. That could kick the issue back to the oversight board in September.

"Since we took on this obligation together, I think we would want to go forward together," Bean said.

Sinking millions into the bridge has little long-term benefit, Yauch said. Engineers estimate the repairs will last 10 years. Then the 2.6-mile span will be back where it is today: due for demolition.

Engineers, who found the bridge cracking and crumbling, estimate it will cost $15 million to repair and $13 million to demolish.

The proposal stands little chance of federal approval and compares poorly with regional projects seeking stimulus dollars, Yauch said, echoing the assessment from the county's Washington lobbying firm, Patton Boggs.

"I think we really have to look at the bigger picture," said Commissioner Nancy Bostock, an oversight panel member critical of the stimulus funding plan.

But that riled bridge supporters who have rallied to save the span at recent public meetings.

"I'm shocked to hear that news, because of the overwhelming public participation at the two meetings," said Ben Ritter, government relations director of the local Paralyzed Veterans of America chapter.

Ritter and Frank Miller, executive director of the nonprofit Friendship Trail Corp., said the county risks nothing applying for the stimulus cash, and more money could be available elsewhere in 10 years.

Pinellas officials also are too worried about jeopardizing other stimulus requests, they said.

The county intends to request $40 million to $45 million to expand its "smart signal" traffic light system, Yauch said. But he said that request and the bridge would be judged separately.

Commissioner John Morroni suggested finding private donations to save the bridge or a way to demolish it for free.

"They ought to call Hollywood and see if someone … would pay to blow it up for a movie."

Times staff writer Janet Zink contributed to this report. David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4167.

Some Pinellas officials oppose stimulus money to save Friendship Trail Bridge 08/17/09 [Last modified: Monday, August 17, 2009 10:36pm]
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