Setting a blistering construction schedule, the crews that built the Belleair Beach Causeway Bridge got it open to traffic last Friday, just in time for the June 1 start of hurricane season. Hitting that date is significant because the causeway is a vital link in the county's hurricane evacuation plan, and the new bridge is a much better facility to carry evacuating traffic than the narrow, obsolete drawbridge it replaced.
While the lanes on the bridge are open now to two-way traffic, significant work remains to be done under and around the bridge. Still, the county expects all work to be finished by early December. When work first began in March 2007, the county estimated the bridge could be completed as late as spring 2010.
The bridge work also is tracking well when it comes to spending. Only $60.5 million of the originally budgeted $72 million has been spent so far. Time will tell whether the project comes in under budget, but the county and private construction companies building the bridge should be proud that the work has gone so smoothly.
Locals will recall that the last bridge built in Pinellas to span the Intracoastal Waterway — the state's new Memorial Causeway Bridge between the mainland and Clearwater Beach — did not go nearly so well.
Locals also may notice that the moniker for the new county bridge is different: the Belleair Beach Causeway Bridge. The old bridge was known as the Belleair Causeway Bridge, but a county spokeswoman says the registered name has always included "Beach" and it had just been shortened over the years. The county wants to return to the official name.
The new bridge is being built with $34 million in federal funds and up to $38 million in Penny for Pinellas sales tax revenue. The penny tax may be spent only on public infrastructure projects. Without the penny tax, the funding for such capital projects would have to come from property taxes.
The new bridge is a big improvement over the old 1950 drawbridge, which was dangerously narrow, unfit for pedestrian and bicycle use, caused traffic backups when it opened to allow boats to pass and had exceeded its functional lifespan of about 50 years.
The new 74-foot-tall fixed bridge has wider traffic lanes, sidewalks and bicycle lanes — and a better view because of its height and wide-spaced supports.
According to the county, the bridge is built on shafts that extend 60 to 90 feet into the earth and it can withstand a Category 5 hurricane. The bridge project also includes long-needed improvements to the heavily used causeway park and public boat ramps, construction of a small relief bridge and removal of the old bridge supports. Much of that work remains to be done.
But with the bridge open to traffic, motorists have a modern alternative to the Memorial Causeway Bridge to get to the barrier islands and a new and beautiful view to enjoy from the top of the bridge. Take a drive and see your tax dollars put to good use.