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Trail fan asks for holiday opening

GANDY — Neil Cosentino wants to get you a Christmas present.

Cosentino, who led the crusade to save the Friendship Trail Bridge, has been pestering Hillsborough County Commissioners to reopen the popular pedestrian park — if only for one merry day.

"(I)t would make a wonderful Christmas present (for) over 2,000,000 citizens in the Tampa Bay area," he said in an e-mail to a commissioner.

The windy, wide open water span opened for pedestrians 10 years ago today. Hillsborough and Pinellas county public works directors closed it last year after they say inspectors found that steel tendons that support the span were eroding, cracking and sending shards of concrete into the bay.

Mike Williams, a Hillsborough public works engineer, said county administrators could decide to reopen the bridge, but it's not likely.

"As stewards for the public, knowing what we know, we can't open that bridge," Williams said.

Commissioner Rose Ferlita said she understands that the bridge means a lot to her constituents, but she doesn't want to put them in danger.

"Opening it on Christmas Day, there's a liability there," she said. "I don't gamble with public safety issues."

However, there's still hope.

Williams said the county is working on an independent analysis to verify the findings.

But don't expect results by Christmas, he said.

Hundreds have packed community meetings on both sides of the bay to support keeping the bridge open. Engineers have estimated it will cost $15 million to extend the bridge's life by another decade. The estimate for tearing it down is $13 million.

Cosentino questions whether the state of the bridge is as dire as engineers have said. From information he has gathered, he believes the bridge would crack, then gradually sag or sink before posing a danger to pedestrians.

He wants county officials to open the bridge Christmas eve and then inspect every morning for cracks before opening each day thereafter.

Cosentino, who says he worked in construction in New York, believes the bridge as it stands will be safe for the weight of pedestrians for 100 years. He wants county officials to specify which point of the bridge is in danger.

Williams says it's impossible to predict exactly when and where the bridge could fail.

By e-mail, he referred Cosentino to the engineer's reports, which he says alludes to a potential "sudden collapse due to the lack of tension tie and limited shear reinforcement."

Cosentino said these are generalities. Any bridge could collapse.

But he hasn't given up. He misses the euphoric feeling he experienced on that bridge.

"Maybe," he said, "Santa Claus will still come."

Elisabeth Parker can be reached at (813) 226-3431 or eparker@sptimes.com.

On the web

View the engineer reports on the Friendship Trail Bridge at hillsboroughcounty.org/publicworks/engineering/resources/publications.

Trail fan asks for holiday opening 12/10/09 [Last modified: Thursday, December 10, 2009 3:31am]
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