The old Gandy Bridge had a good life in retirement as an over-the-water recreational path called the Friendship Trail Bridge. But Hillsborough County has spent five years toying with the notion that a private sector sponsor will step forward and take this crumbling liability off the taxpayers' hands. It's time the county find a developer or move ahead with demolition.
County officials will spend the next three months drafting bid requests for private sponsors interested in the bridge. This marks at least the third round of floating trial balloons looking to find a suitor. Gandy was closed to vehicular traffic in 1997 after the new bridge was built, but the county converted the old span into the Friendship Trail at the request of preservationists. The trail, which links South Tampa to Pinellas County, attracted hundreds of thousands of pedestrians, cyclists and runners every year. But the county closed it in 2008 after engineers reported the underside was cracking and unsafe.
Several proposals to save the bridge have come and gone over the past few years, but the hurdle has been the same: money. The county doesn't want to spend more tax money on upkeep — much less on the major overhaul the span would need — and no private entity has stepped up to pay for a redevelopment project that could cost up to $25 million.
It's unclear whether three more months will shake out a deal when the bridge and its much-touted potential have been so visible on the public radar. Hillsborough County commissioners have been patient and supportive in trying to find a new owner and purpose for the bridge. The trail is a nice amenity, but the county has better priorities for its parks budget. It's time to either find a private sponsor or to tear down the bridge before the demolition costs go up or someone near it gets hurt.
The county needs to ensure that any applicants have a solid business plan to guard against having the bridge end up back in public hands. Any new use needs to serve a broad public benefit and, ideally, be accessible from both sides of the bay. Officials should be cautious about any plan that overcommercializes the waterfront. And any venture must include protections that ensure the taxpayers will not be liable for demolishing any new structures. Spending a few more months working to save the trail is fine. But if the numbers still cannot work, it's time the county moved on before the expense of keeping the bridge gets even worse.