State may have enough leftover stimulus money to replace aging Bayway bridge

The drawbridge on the Pinellas Bayway snarls traffic heading to Pass-a-Grille as boats pass underneath on Memorial Day.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

The drawbridge on the Pinellas Bayway snarls traffic heading to Pass-a-Grille as boats pass underneath on Memorial Day.

The state has struggled for years to find money to replace the aging Pinellas Bayway bridges.

On Wednesday, state transportation officials had good news.

They may have $65 million in extra stimulus money to replace the span leading to St. Pete Beach.

The money for a new four-lane, 76-foot-tall bridge could be available as early as August, said Don Skelton, district secretary for the state Department of Transportation.

Other state stimulus projects have been cheaper than expected, Skelton said. For example, he said a bid for a project on U.S. 41 in Pasco County was about 30 percent less than what was budgeted, creating a savings of nearly $7 million.

He said he did not know how big the total savings would be because all the project bids were not in yet.

The Pinellas Metropolitan Planning Organization voted Wednesday to move the Bayway bridge into consideration for federal funds.

Skelton said that although the project was added to the project priority list, it wasn't a final financial commitment. The bridge that leads to Tierra Verde would not be replaced as part of this project, he said.

The Transportation Department should know by the end of August if it has enough money to build the new span.

There is one project above it on the list: accelerating the timetable of new overpasses on U.S. 19, Skelton said.

Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard said the stimulus presented a great opportunity for U.S. 19.

"We need to take it," he said. "Ultimately, we'll have to face this monster."

The Bayway bridges have had a tumultuous history.

In 1995, the state diverted $18.8 million from the Bayway maintenance fund to widen Blind Pass Road, angering residents who said they were promised the toll revenue would be used for Bayway repairs.

In 2004, the state put out a call for bids to replace the aging span, but received only a single offer of $49 million, nearly $12 million over budget. The department rejected the bid, then defeated the bidder's protest in court.

Then the price of concrete and steel more than doubled.

In 2007, residents balked at a state plan to raise the tolls leading to Fort De Soto Park from 35 cents to $2.50 to help pay for new bridges.

The state ultimately withdrew that plan.

On Wednesday, Skelton said he wasn't sure when the state would be able to replace the other bridge.

Chris Arbutine, mayor of Belleair Bluffs and chairman of the Metropolitan Planning Organization, said there is a genuine desire to get the bridges built, but with a caveat.

"We don't want to get one bridge and forget the other one," he said.

Jackie Alexander can be reached at (727) 893-8779 or jdalexander@sptimes.com.

State may have enough leftover stimulus money to replace aging Bayway bridge 07/08/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 9, 2009 7:34am]

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