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Bridges getting set for future

In the early '60s, cars had fins, rock had Elvis and the Howard Frankland Bridge was new. Thirty years later the Howard Frankland teeters on its last legs, cursed and reviled by commuters twice a day. When a new span opens to traffic next month, it won't be a moment too soon for long-suffering Tampa Bay commuters.

Relief for the traveling public in the bay area comes as a series of other bridge improvements are in the works or nearly done:

The old Howard Frankland will be rehabilitated, widened and made ready for the day _ in 1993 _ when twin spans will carry four lanes of traffic in each direction.

A dramatic-sounding repair job will require a contractor to jack up the Sunshine Skyway 1 inch to replace bearings that allow the massive structure to expand and contract.

The 35-year-old westbound span of the Gandy Bridge is being shored up to extend its life until 1994, when it's scheduled to be replaced.

A new bridge on the Pinellas approach to the Sunshine Skyway should be open by August.

Bridge inspection reports bear bad news for bay area drivers.

The old Howard Frankland (decrepit pilings, uneven deck), the Sunshine Skyway (corroded bearings) and the westbound Gandy (cracked and flaking piers) are rated structurally deficient.

But, "we're not talking about bridges that are going to fall in," said Mark Hopkins, a program administrator for the state Department of Transportation.

"We're not going to allow the public or goods to travel over a bridge that's not sufficient to hold the load," said Bill McDaniel, the top official for DOT's Tampa-based District 7. "If it's not adequate, we'll post limits. If we can't get it repaired or replaced in a timely manner, we'll close the bridge."

That's not likely to happen because repair or replacement plans are in place.

New span

For thousands of drivers, relief is tantalizingly close.

Stuck on the old Howard Frankland, motorists have been able to watch the new bridge creeping from shore to shore toward completion in the middle. Faster, at times, than they are traveling.

The final beams were set in place April 18. Since then, the bridge contractor has been dodging thundershowers to pour the last of the concrete deck. Crews also are fastening light pole platforms to the structure, pouring barrier walls on each side of the roadway and getting ready to erect signs.

Last week Jim Moulton Sr., the project manager for DOT, conducted another tour of the new bridge. Two years ago, he led tours in a boat. Six months ago, visitors could walk on the bridge deck. Now he can drive them in his DOT car almost all the way across the bridge. But not quite.

"When we're able to pour the last section of deck you'll be able to ride your bicycle over it," Moulton said.

Moulton is not one to wax philosophical about the bridge as it nears completion. Asked whether he was thrilled about setting the last beams in place, Moulton talked about safety.

"We had safety concerns because those beams weigh 80 tons," he said. "We're glad we got the heavy work done. If we can get finished out here with nobody getting hurt bad, I'll thank the Lord for that."

The contractor has not avoided mishaps. Two cranes have been dumped from their barges into the bay, one by vandals, another by the big no-name storm that swept through the bay area in April.

In fact, the no-name storm with winds of up to 100 mph flipped a barge and dumped $70,000 worth of concrete beams into the bay. Another barge, ripped from its moorings by the storm, drifted toward the old span. The DOT rushed to close the bridge in case the barge wrecked the piers. It missed them and was recovered. Seven more barges came loose and drifted toward the sea wall on the Tampa approach. The beams have yet to be retrieved from 15 feet of water.

The DOT is shooting to open the bridge the week after the official dedication July 20.

Moulton said weekend lane closings will be necessary when the DOT routes traffic from the old bridge to the new. A concrete median barrier will be up until work on the old Howard Frankland Bridge is completed two years from now. When the entire $65-million project is finished, the new bridge will carry westbound traffic and the old span will handle eastbound traffic.

Moulton said he will miss the job and the work on the glistening bay, but not the constant demands for tours from engineers, the media and politicians. (Sen. Bob Graham spent one of his "work days" on the bridge.)

"I think the men out there are going to be sorry the job's finished," he said, "but they're going to be satisfied they got a good product."

Bridging the money gap

Two years ago, the DOT was desperate for bridge repair and replacement money. The lifelines connecting the mainland with Florida's beachfront and bayside communities deteriorated while the state's politicians feuded over a gas tax increase to pay for repairs.

The statewide bridge repair budget plummeted from $62-million in 1987 to $2.7-million in 1990. Thanks to a 4-cent gas tax increase in most counties, the bridge repair budget is climbing again. The DOT has spent $19-million in the fiscal year ending July 1 and plans to spend $32-million next year.

Bridge repair spending for Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties fell to zero in 1990, climbed to $3-million this year and will hit $5.7-million next year.

"We've been able to address all the problems we had on the shelf," said Dewey Oliver, the chief bridge inspector for the Tampa Bay area. "Now we're back to where we were before the bottom fell out."

Which still leaves a substantial backlog of bridges that inspectors say need repair or replacement. Besides doing the work on the Gandy, old Howard Frankland and Skyway, the DOT plans to replace the Blind Pass bridge in St. Petersburg Beach at a cost of $13-million and repair the Allen's Creek bridge on U.S. 19 and three bridges on State Road 674 in southern Hillsborough County.

"Right now just about everything that is structurally deficient is in the mode of being replaced," said Chris Little, bridge inspections supervisor for the Tampa-based district.

That's generally true across the state, said Orren Shumaker, who tracks the backlog of bridge repairs. The DOT lists 76 bridges in Florida as structurally deficient. All but 12 of those are scheduled to be repaired or replaced in the DOT's five-year work plan.

"Definitely there was more money programed and allocated for bridge replacement for this upcoming five years than there had been before," Shumaker said. "The department realized it needed to put more in that category."

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