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84-year-old bridge will limit traffic over year's renovation

DOWNTOWN — For some, repairs on the Platt Street Bridge that began this week mean a few extra minutes to work. Others, however, worry that the project could kill their businesses or leave drivers confused with no charted detour in sight.

"This is potentially devastating," said Eric Weinstein, managing director of Zudar's Deli, which sits west of the bridge and relies on Platt Street's one-way traffic. "During rush hour, (Platt Street) will be backed up and customers will have to wait to get in and get out. Accessibility will be dramatically affected."

Waleed Azzi, owner of adjoining Azzi Tailoring, was more fatalistic: "We're going to be dead."

On Monday, workers began an expected 15-month renovation on the four-lane, one-way bridge. Until April, the northernmost lane and sidewalk will remain closed, with occasional closures of a second lane, while workers replace the thick cement railing. When the left lane reopens, the southernmost lane and sidewalk will close for the next four months, again with occasional closures of a second lane. A portion of the Riverwalk project below the bridge will remain closed until next year.

Likely beginning in early September, the entire bridge will close for 105 days as workers replace the drawbridge mechanism — the period that most worries local business owners.

"My concern is on my business, because they never ever finish on time," Azzi said.

Hillsborough County spokesman Steve Valdez said county officials understand the impact of a total closure and thus included hefty incentives to finish the estimated $13.8 million project early.

In a first for the county, contractors will earn $100,000 for each day they finish the drawbridge replacement before the allotted 105, but will lose $100,000 for each day after. For example, if contractors replace the drawbridge in 95 days, the county pays $1 million more. If they need 115 days to replace it, the county gets a $1 million discount.

Valdez said the bridge carries about 35,000 vehicles per day from Bayshore Boulevard and Platt Street into downtown near the Tampa Convention Center. The Kennedy Boulevard bridge cannot handle that volume, Valdez said, but officials do not plan to detour traffic.

The Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway would alleviate expected stress on the Kennedy Boulevard bridge, Valdez said, "but we cannot detour by law onto a toll road, so we're not setting up an official detour. People just need to choose the best route."

Weinstein worries the lack of direction for motorists will cause more congestion in the tangle of one-way streets just south of the University of Tampa.

"Traffic heading north on Bayshore will have to be diverted, and so far no one has answered how," he said. "There's going to be an extreme amount of traffic."

Last week, a county news release said construction would begin about Jan. 18. On Monday, however, commuters already found a lane closed. Valdez said work began early to ensure the bridge was ready for the Republican National Convention in 2012.

After the drawbridge is replaced, which requires custom parts because the bridge was built in 1926, workers will install antique-style lights and paint it. All lanes should be open for this portion, Valdez said.

By project's end — scheduled for March 2012 — the bridge will "be completely rebuilt to today's engineering standards but look completely identical to when it opened 84 years ago," Valdez said.

The bridge, which is often featured prominently in the Tampa cityscape, was built in the Mediterranean Revival style, which gives it a tropical feel, said Tampa Historian Lucy D. Jones. One of the lead designers was the man who designed the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, she said.

The 518-foot span was rated structurally deficient in a state inspection last year, deeming it eligible for a federal grant, which helped fund repairs. Another $11.4 million came from the Community Investment Tax, a half-penny sales tax that is reinvested in community projects in Hillsborough County.

Some residents near the bridge Tuesday said although the project would be inconvenient, safety was paramount.

"Take the time to get it fixed so I don't have to worry about the bridge collapsing," said Rachael Greenstein, 30, who has rerouted her morning commute to the Crosstown Expressway.

But Weinstein fears his downtown-bound customers eventually will disappear as the problem worsens and more avoid the area. Tampa General Hospital recently e-mailed employees to avoid the Platt Street Bridge.

Still, with one lane closed for now, some commuters said they are sticking to their route.

"When it closes (this fall), I'll just get around it. I don't know yet," said Scott Taylor, 63, a Tampa attorney who uses the bridge everyday. "I guess I'll cross that bridge when I come to it."

Jack Nicas can be reached at (813)226-3401 or jnicas@sptimes.com.

84-year-old bridge will limit traffic over year's renovation 01/13/11 [Last modified: Thursday, January 13, 2011 3:31am]

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