More than $150 million in federal stimulus money is pouring into the area for traffic projects, yet only a fraction of it will be used to fix deficient and obsolete bridges.
Of the three area bridges receiving stimulus funds, just one — a ramp on the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway — was deemed structurally deficient by state inspectors, according to a St. Petersburg Times analysis of state and federal highway records.
The other two are a span over Allen's Creek on U.S. 19 in Clearwater and a wildlife crossing on U.S. 41 in southern Pasco County. The two bridges don't need repairs but were targeted for updating in connection with larger road projects.
"It's appalling. It's appalling our elected officials are prioritizing the widening and resurfacing of roads over the safety of bridges," said Brad Ashwell, director of the Florida Public Interest Research Group, which studies transportation spending.
Motorists in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties drive over 187 deficient or obsolete bridges about 3.9 million times a day. Unless those structures are replaced or brought up to current engineering standards, that number will grow to an estimated 6.4 million daily trips by 2028.
Ten bridges were labeled "structurally deficient," meaning they'll need to be repaired or replaced within six years. The rest are "functionally obsolete," a way of saying they've outlived their original design or haven't kept pace with the surrounding growth.
State and local officials insist the bridges are safe for travel.
"As a road gets widened, the bridge might not get widened, making the bridge functionally obsolete. But that does not affect the structural integrity of the bridge," said Pepe Garcia, structures maintenance engineer at the state Department of Transportation's Tampa office.
Officials also say they would have gladly accepted the federal government's stimulus money to mend bridges if given the chance.
The government's requirement calling for "shovel-ready" projects left public works officials with little choice but to focus on roads.
Planning for a new bridge or a major overhaul can take years and scores of public meetings. So while local officials appreciate the infusion of federal money to shore up crumbling roads, many bridge repairs are being left off the table.
"It's somewhat frustrating that they wanted shovel-ready projects," said Tom Fass, section manager for capital projects management in Hillsborough County. "It really limits the projects you can do."
Another frustrating requirement: Projects seeking the funding must comply with federal, rather than state, environmental and design standards. That meant projects had to be partially or completely redesigned or exempted from the federal guidelines in order to qualify for money.
The three bridges in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties only landed stimulus money because they were part of larger highway projects.
The Allen's Creek bridge in Clearwater is part of the reconstruction of U.S. 19 between State Road 60 and Whitney Road. Although the span is in good working order, it's due to be replaced to accommodate the highway's reconstruction.
In Land O'Lakes, a wildlife crossing near Connerton Boulevard is set to be widened from two lanes to four because U.S. 41 is being widened from Tower Road to the Ridge Road Extension.
On the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway in Tampa, a ramp at 22nd Street is being targeted for replacement as part of the $400 million I-4 Connector project to link the Crosstown and Interstate 4.
Officials say that while the region's bridges are safe, stimulus money could have been used to tackle the backlog of projects. Older bridges often need spot repairs and more inspections. The projected lifespan for bridges built in the 1950s was about 50 years, officials said. In the three counties, 137 bridges are at least that old. "Let's just say, if they offered us the funding we wouldn't have turned it down," said Deborah Bolduc, program administrator for engineering services in Pasco County.
Still, officials say they're doing what they can. In Pasco, a bridge on State Road 39 in Crystal Springs and two bridges carrying Interstate 75 over County Road 54 are set to be replaced next year.
In Hillsborough County, the 1920s-era Cass Street Bridge was overhauled this summer. Two other bridges from the same era — the Columbus Drive Bridge and the Platt Street Bridge — are set to be renovated next year. Both received about $2.5 million in federal money unrelated to the stimulus program.
"When they're done, they'll look exactly the same but they'll be spit-shined and polished," said Tom Capell, construction group manager for Hillsborough County.
In Pinellas County, officials are holding out hope that one more bridge will still get stimulus dollars. In September, the Department of Transportation amended its funding request to include the western bridge of the Pinellas Bayway onto St. Pete Beach.
The bridge is one of three Bayway drawbridges, including one leading to Tierra Verde, that the county wants to replace with fixed-span structures. The three are approaching their 50-year lifespan.
Replacing the western drawbridge, which is "functionally obsolete," is estimated to cost $67 million. Officials are seeking about $27 million of stimulus money to jump-start the project next year, but the request hasn't been approved.
"In this case, it's a matter of reliability," said Pete Yauch, public works and transportation director for Pinellas County. "It's important for people to get on and off the island. You also have ambulances and fire trucks that need access. These bridges are our highest priority."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.