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New opening date for Columbus Drive Bridge: July 24

TAMPA — In February, when the county shut down the main gateway to his riverside restaurant, Ken Brackins worried business would not fare well.

His prediction was accurate: He says business at Rick's on the River has been off 40 percent since the Columbus Drive Bridge was temporarily closed for major repairs.

"How can you make that up?" Brackins said.

It has been a longer-than-planned wait for the businesses and residents who depend on the historic swing bridge spanning the Hillsborough River.

First the $8.6 million rehabilitation was supposed to be finished in late May. Then late June. Now, July 24.

County public works spokesman Steve Valdez likened the work to the renovation of an old home. Sometimes, everything goes as planned. Other times, there are surprises lurking behind the drywall.

The steel beams? They were so bad they needed to be replaced, not repaired. The asphalt on the approaches to the bridge? Turned out it's built on sand, and workers had to build a new foundation. The drive shafts? Flattened by old bearings.

And then there has been the recent rain.

"Every time you just say, 'Oh, Lord,' " said Valdez.

All the unforeseen work adds up to about $150,000. The money will come from a contingency fund set aside as part of the contract, said Valdez.

The county can't hold the contractor responsible for delays because the new work was not part of the original contract, he added.

About 20,000 vehicles a day cross the bridge, an artery for residents heading to and from the airport, International Mall and the West Shore area. It's also a popular route to Armenia Avenue and Interstate 275.

The Columbus Drive Bridge is among a handful in Florida that pivot horizontally on a stationary axis. Originally called the Michigan Avenue Bridge, it was renamed in 1943 when Michigan Avenue was changed to Columbus Drive. Developers looking to sell houses near the river financed most of the initial construction, but the city and a company that operated streetcars chipped in as well.

In recent years, large sections of the concrete deck and curb were crumbling, and the metal support beams and gears that open and close the bridge were rusted and chipped, making it nearly inoperable. Valdez said that when the bridge would open for boat traffic and close again, a worker had to slip underneath with a 2 by 4 to bang the locking pins into place.

The goal of the project is to marry modern engineering with the historic design.

"The bridge will look as close to identical as the way it was when it opened," he said.

He said critics who say the county should have maintained it better throughout the years are "probably right."

"But you do it when money is available," he said.

Riverside Heights resident Barry Shalinsky said the closure has caused some frustration in the neighborhood.

"It's meant changing some habits, and it's inconvenient," said Shalinsky. "Having said that . . . I'm glad they're fixing it, and I'm glad they're taking the time to do it right."

Over at Rick's restaurant, Brackins said he has an idea for letting his old lunchtime crowd know next month that the easy route is open again.

"We'll have a big bridge opening party," he said.

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374.

New opening date for Columbus Drive Bridge: July 24

07/05/12 [Last modified: Thursday, July 5, 2012 4:30am]
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