The Friendship Trail Bridge was closed indefinitely Thursday, severing the only link between Tampa and St. Petersburg for pedestrians, cyclists and inline skaters.
The sudden decision came after inspectors on Tuesday determined the bridge is dangerously deteriorated. The steel tendons that underpin the span are corroding, breaking the concrete and dropping chunks into Tampa Bay. An engineering firm recommended it be closed immediately.
Engineers will detail the damage and put a price tag on repairs by the end of this month, but some fear the bridge used by almost 600,000 people annually is just too old to keep up.
"Everybody knew that this day was coming eventually," said Bob Gordon, public works director for Hillsborough County. "We didn't know it would be today."
Barricades went up at 5 p.m., just as the fit after-work crowd began to arrive. People were shocked to hear that their trip across the span might be their last.
"I was so dependent on this bridge for years and years," said Donna Carter, a marathon runner from St. Petersburg. "I'm going to have to come up with a different plan of attack."
"That's terrible," said Joel Gorman, 34, of Seminole Heights, who pedals the trail regularly. "It'll kill a lot of organized rides."
For cyclists, the bridge is the key connector between groups in Tampa and St. Petersburg. Both cities have been working to create a seamless route between the two downtowns, said Frank Miller, executive director of the Friendship Trail Corp.
But Miller, who led the movement to save the bridge from demolition more than a decade ago, hopes the trail will endure.
If the repair cost is manageable, he hopes the state of Florida, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties or citizen groups could step up with money.
"We would all hate to lose it," Miller said. "It's become everything that we wanted it to be."
The damage discovered this week put a halt to $4.2-million in planned repairs to bridge pilings. Engineers had recommended the work after an inspection in March, and Hillsborough and Pinellas counties were prepared to pay for it.
But in August, the state closed the eastern portions of the fishing piers by the Sunshine Skyway Bridge after discovering serious structural problems. State officials then recommended the counties take a closer look at the Friendship Trail Bridge, which is similar in age and structure.
That's what led to this week's report that the corrosion had worsened to the point where the bridge could be a hazard.
Pinellas County spokeswoman Meg Korakis said the problem is larger than the Friendship Trail. Many area bridges were built in the post-World War II population boom and are wearing out at the same time.
"The lifespan of a bridge is 50 years," she said. "It comes to a point, to maintain them it becomes expensive and not prudent."
This isn't the first time the bridge has come under threat.
Built for car traffic in 1956, it closed in 1997 with the opening of the current Gandy Bridge. The state Department of Transportation set aside nearly $7-million for its demolition.
Community activists and civic leaders rallied to keep the bridge open for fishing and recreation. They prevailed, and the money for demolition was put toward maintenance, installing the catwalks and lighting.
Now that money is mostly depleted. And Hillsborough County Commissioner Jim Norman is saying, "I told you so."
Norman was a lone voice among elected officials who warned the bridge could become a money pit. Repairs would grow too costly and local government would ultimately be forced to foot the bill for demolition.
"I said if you take this on, it will become a black hole," Norman said. "I got painted as an 'I don't love the community' guy."
But advocates won't give up.
Jan Platt, a former Hillsborough County commissioner who serves on the Agency on Bay Management, said leaders should compare the cost of demolishing the structure with the price to fix it.
"We need to ask a lot of questions about the whole issue before a decision is made," Platt said. "It's become a basic part of our community. I think we need to find a way to make it work."
One eventual option could arise when the state decides to build a new eastbound span to replace the existing one, which is older than the westbound bridge. Pedestrians could use the old bridge.
Miller, the bridge advocate, described it as "a natural occurrence, when — not if — that eastbound bridge becomes too old for traffic.
"We used to joke about it, but now it's becoming more of a solution," Miller said.
Times staff writers Kim Wilmath and Aaron Sharockman contributed to this report. Stephanie Garry can be reached at (727) 892-2374 or firstname.lastname@example.org.