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Battles lines drawn again over Friendship Trail Bridge

GANDY — Community activists and cyclists are looking to gather support for what might be another long battle: reopening the Friendship Trail Bridge.

The bridge was closed last month after engineers discovered that it had dangerously deteriorated with chunks dropping into Tampa Bay.

Since then, local bicyclists, and business owners have felt the pinch.

"A lot of people think it's closed totally," said Bill Robinson, owner of Gandy Bait and Tackle, which has noticed a decline in business. "There's construction on the road and they've taken away some of the parking we used to have. It's a lot of things all at once, that's what's bad."

Alan Snel, director of a local bike alliance called South West Florida Bicycle United Dealers, said the bridge's partial closing is a major roadblock for local bicyclists. People who use the bridge range from the casual rider to commuters to speed cyclists who like to train on the trail.

"I hope (Hillsborough) county officials and agencies realize how important it is to speed up the re-opening of the bridge," Snel said this week.

He recently met with County Commissioner Kevin Becker about the bridge and plans to circulate a petition to hasten the reopening. He has also urged officials to install temporary electronic signs, warning drivers to look out for bikers.

"People are going to start riding on the shoulder of the Gandy Bridge, and I wouldn't recommend that to anyone but the most experienced and safe bicyclist," Snel said.

Some question whether the bridge should have been closed at all.

Al Steenson, president of the Gandy Civic Association, said he wanted more information on its deterioration and what would be done to fix the problems.

"I don't think there's enough information out there to close the bridge, from what I can tell," Steenson said. "Frankly, in my opinion, it seems premature."

Community activist Neil Cosentino is organizing a group called Tampa Bay's Friends of the Friendship Trail Bridge. He, too, questions whether the state of the bridge is as dire as engineers have said.

"We're trying to get the facts to the people that live in the area and the people who use the bridge," said Cosentino, who also fought to save the bridge when it was scheduled for demolition more than a decade ago.

The group meets Thursday to discuss the past, present and future of the Friendship Trail and bridge, as well as a possible master plan.

Initially, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties allotted $4.2-million for repairs, but those plans were put on hold in early November when engineers discovered that the bridge was in worse shape than they thought. In recent weeks, government officials from Hillsborough and Pinellas have said they don't know where money for extra bridge repairs would come from.

Engineers hired by Hillsborough County have been inspecting the bridge to determine the cost of repairs.

The bridge was built for car traffic in 1956 and closed in 1997 when the current Gandy Bridge opened. Rather than demolish it, civic leaders fought and prevailed to keep it open for fishing and recreation. Nearly 600,000 people now use it each year.

The last time the bridge was in danger, the Friendship Trail Corporation was formed to coordinate public and private fundraising efforts.

Amid the clamor from residents eager to see the bridge reopened, Frank Miller, the group's executive director, is standing by.

"I want to wait and see the results before we take any action as an organization. Once we know the facts and figures we'll see what can be done," Miller said.

Some members of the community have already offered to donate money toward bridge repairs, but Miller has asked them to wait until all the facts are known.

"If the price tag of the bridge is going to be prohibitive, and the number of years it's going to extend the bridge is only a few, who in their right mind would want to go ahead and ask people to contribute to that," Miller said.

He is skeptical that the private sector could raise enough money, pointing out that over the 10 years, only $80,000 has been raised from private resources.

Fast facts

Bridge closure

Pedestrians, cyclists and anglers are allowed to use roughly 2,000 feet at both ends of the bridge, but the elevated middle portion is off-limits.

Boaters also are banned from the area under the bridge that was closed, except for the channel.

If you go

What: Tampa Bay's Friends of the Friendship Trail & Bridge meeting.

Purpose: A planning meeting to discuss the past, present and future of the Friendship Trail & Bridge and master plans for the trail, bridge and Gandy Boulevard.

When: Thursday at 7 p.m.

Where: Jan Platt Library, 3910 S Manhattan Ave.

Contact: Neil Cosentino at (813) 251-4669 or 251-4669.

Battles lines drawn again over Friendship Trail Bridge 12/11/08 [Last modified: Friday, December 12, 2008 1:57pm]
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