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Columbus Drive Bridge to close for repairs

TAMPA — Get ready for another bridge closure.

With the Platt Street Bridge recently reopened, engineers now plan to shut down the Columbus Drive Bridge for repairs. The swing bridge — one of only a handful in Florida — will close Tuesday for three months.

The 85-year-old span, built at about the same time as the Platt Street Bridge, is showing its age.

Large sections of the concrete deck and curb are crumbling, and the metal support beams and gears that open and close the bridge are rusted and chipped, making it nearly inoperable.

"It just got to a critical standpoint," Hillsborough County Public Works spokesman Steve Valdez said. "The bridge tenders would have to go out there with a crowbar to unlock (the gears) when they got stuck. They would literally have to give them a shove to make them work. They were that worn out."

The county reopened the Platt Street Bridge on Jan. 16 after a 105-day closure that allowed workers to install custom-made gears and electrical components. Two miles upstream on the Hillsborough River, the 470-foot Columbus Drive Bridge will undergo a similar, painstaking restoration.

Workers have already removed the tender house on the bridge's south side to make room for a new structure. Some metal supports have been replaced as well.

But the heart of the project — restoring the bridge's gears and electrical system — will require locking the span in an open position for 90 days. A barge anchored near the center of the river will give workers access to the bridge's components.

Columbus Drive will be closed to traffic in the area. County officials say they plan to reroute vehicles to N Boulevard, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Howard and Armenia avenues.

Some Riverside Heights residents and business owners, while acknowledging the need for the closure, say they're not happy about it.

About 20,000 vehicles a day cross the bridge, which is 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.

"I use it at least twice a day to take my kids to and from day care before and after work," said Riverside Heights resident Barry Shalinsky. "This will inconvenience a whole lot of people."

• • •

Ken Brackins, a manager at Rick's on the River, a restaurant and marina south of Columbus on the west side of the Hillsborough River, said he's been dreading the closure since he heard about it six months ago. He expects the lunch crowd to thin out during the closure.

"People have a limited time for lunch and this is going to make it inconvenient for anyone coming here," he said. "Hopefully, people will adjust. The weekends should be fine."

Likewise, Hakim Aquil, who owns the open-air clothing shop Fashion on the Boulevard at Columbus Drive and N Boulevard, predicted sales could slide 50 percent.

"Half my customers come from drive-by traffic on Columbus," Aquil said.

The $8.6 million project is especially complicated because the bridge was designated a historic structure in 2006. That means it can't be easily replaced and that any parts used to restore it must mirror those installed when the bridge opened in 1927.

One exception is the tender house. The original building had a low metal roof that limited the tender's ability to see the north side of the Hillsborough River.

"The tender would have to run out to make sure nobody was in the way and then run back real quick to operate the bridge," Valdez said.

The new tender house will have a domed glass roof to improve visibility.

The swing bridge is among a handful in Florida that pivot horizontally on a stationary axis. Other swing bridges are in Fort Lauderdale, Amelia Island, Boca Grande, Titusville and Palm Beach County's Torry Island.

The Columbus Drive Bridge, called a bobtail swing bridge, is unique in the state in that it pivots slightly off-center in order to create a wide clearance over the river's main channel.

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.

The bridge's original price is tough to pin down. According to materials at the Witt Research Center at the Tampa History Center, the bridge was estimated at either $212,000 or $400,000 or $420,000.

"I'm happy to see it's being restored," Shalinsky said. "It's a swing bridge as opposed to a drawbridge and there aren't a whole lot of those left in Florida. Driving over it, just the feel of it is more in keeping with the neighborhood feel."

Columbus Drive Bridge to close for repairs 02/02/12 [Last modified: Thursday, February 2, 2012 3:30am]
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