The Friendship Trail Bridge over Tampa Bay provided many days of car-free joy for walkers, joggers and bicyclists, but its time, truly, has passed. A new examination of the 1956 bridge by engineers has determined that repairing it properly would cost $48 million — an amount so much higher than previous estimates that officials on both sides of the bay have no choice but to demolish it.
Pinellas County Commissioner Calvin Harris, who chaired the Friendship Trail Oversight Committee, informed Pinellas and Hillsborough commissioners of the estimate in a recent letter. He wrote that the Oversight Committee now recommends demolition. Pinellas commissioners are expected to discuss Harris' letter at their meeting Tuesday.
The Friendship Trail gave second life to the old westbound span of the Gandy Bridge when a new vehicle bridge was constructed nearby. The 2.6-mile trail was particularly treasured because it provided the only safe, car-free corridor for pedestrians and bicyclists over the bay. Opened in 1999, it attracted 600,000 users a year and was called the world's longest over-the-water recreational trail.
But the trail was closed abruptly in late 2008 after state inspectors found structural problems in the old Sunshine Skyway fishing pier and realized the old Gandy Bridge had the same design. Engineers checked the trail bridge and found deterioration that would cost $15 million to repair.
The committee Harris chaired held public hearings attended by throngs of enthusiastic Friendship Trail supporters who wanted the bridge fixed. Committee members asked for more details about the condition of the bridge, so E.C. Driver and Associates was hired to study the span.
According to Harris, the engineers declared the steel in the bridge so pitted "the structure could experience a catastrophic collapse with little notice." Engineers questioned the ability of the bridge even to continue to support its own weight. Estimated cost to fix it: $48 million.
With local governments slashing their budgets, cutting services and laying off workers, that stratospheric price finishes the debate about the Friendship Trail. Fixing it is just too costly. In these times, even finding the money to demolish the bridge will be difficult, but it must be done. The bridge is a hazard in its destabilized condition.
Those who supported the trail no doubt will mourn its loss, but the Friendship Trail served a purpose beyond recreation. It proved that hundreds of thousands of people who live here or visit here are eager to cross Tampa Bay on foot or on bicycle, as long as they can do so safely.
The next time the Florida Department of Transportation replaces one of the bridges spanning Tampa Bay, the plans should include provision for a recreational trail that is wide enough for the thousands who will flock to it and safely separated from vehicle traffic.
That will drive up the cost of a new bridge, but thousands of former Friendship Trail users will confirm it is worth the price.