ST. PETERSBURG — For a brief 20 minutes during rush hour Thursday evening, the normally packed Howard Frankland Bridge was clear of traffic.
In a move usually reserved for major accidents or tropical storms, officials shut down the well-traveled bridge just before 6 p.m. after getting reports of a suspicious package underneath the structure.
The Tampa Police Department's bomb squad was called. The Florida Highway Patrol shut down southbound lanes in Hillsborough and the northbound lanes on the Pinellas side.
Soon, however, officials realized the "package" wasn't suspicious at all, but instead was a research device put on the bridge by the Florida Department of Transportation. The bomb squad never made it to the scene, and the road was reopened just before 6:20 p.m.
"It's basically just one of our measuring tools," Transportation Department spokeswoman Kris Carson said Wednesday night.
The device is used to measure salt content around the bridge's pilings to gauge erosion. It's about the size of a countertop microwave.
"I can see how it probably would look suspicious to an average person," Carson said.
A crew installed the tool a few days ago, Carson said, but it is unclear whether law enforcement was immediately told it was there. It is scheduled to be removed today.
Officials didn't say Thursday evening who called authorities with concerns about the device.
Similar devices are also currently on the Courtney Campbell Parkway and the Gandy Bridge, Carson said.
Another will be put on the Sunshine Skyway Bridge soon, she said.
The department's materials facility in Gainesville — which is where this device came from — is constantly gathering data on the bridges because of the corrosive environment, Carson said.
Officials are going to come up with a solution — perhaps large labels for the devices — that will prevent a similar situation from happening again, Carson said.
"Lesson learned," she said.
Kameel Stanley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8643.