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Delay in closing of bridge to be costly

Even though it will almost triple costs, the city should delay work on the Clearwater Pass Bridge rather than close the span for at least two weeks during tourist season, commissioners decided Thursday night.

There's a chance the bridge could settle during repairs, an engineering consultant said during the commission meeting. If that happens, the bridge could be closed much longer than two weeks.

The city's contractor has been adding pilings and supports to stabilize the bridge, which has been undermined by severe erosion. But last week workers found that concrete and rock rubble settled years ago into the sand where some new pilings now must be driven.

Before they can be placed, the rubble must be removed. During the work, the bridge must be closed, said Bill Franklin of Kisinger, Campo and Associates, the engineering firm overseeing the work.

Franklin said he believes there's a 30 percent chance that part of the bridge will settle when the rubble is taken away. Sand around and under the old pilings may shift so that they drop and with them the bridge above.

"If it falls," City Manager Michael Wright said, "we're going to have to shut it down for four to six weeks."

Also, if the pilings drop, they could break the sewer pipe that goes to Sand Key, he said.

The contractor does not now have on hand the equipment it would need if the piling and bridge dropped. "There's an advantage to waiting," Wright said. "These folks can gear up, have the material available, and if it falls or slumps, you can get in and go."

It also would be better for businesses if the bridge weren't closed during tourist season, Wright said.

The city's waiting means that the bridge likely won't be closed until May and that the repair work will cost about $100,000 instead of $34,442, the estimated cost of removing the rubble.

The extra money would be the cost of removing work crews already at the bridge and then moving them back in two months, Wright said.

A bad thunderstorm or a powerful combination of wind and tide could erode enough sand to cause the bridge to settle, Franklin said, but he didn't think delaying repairs would cause a safety hazard.

It's still safe to drive over Clearwater Pass Bridge, Franklin said.

The city will be surveying the bridge every day to make sure it hasn't slumped, Wright said, and a police officer will be stationed to turn away most heavy vehicles, such as garbage trucks.

Fire engines and buses will be allowed to drive over.

"You would go over that bridge?" Commissioner Sue Berfield asked Franklin.

"Yes, absolutely," he said.

Also at the meeting Thursday, the commission gave final approval to limiting lawn watering to twice a week. They okayed the site plan for a proposed Wal-Mart store at NE Coachman Road and U.S. 19 where the Loehmann's Plaza shopping center is now. Loehmann's Plaza will be torn down.

Just before adjournment, during the time when commissioners bring up issues not on the agenda, Commissioner Lee Regulski pointed out "some facts or presumptions that are not true" in a letter of appraisal that estimates the value of land bought for the East End project.

The letter says the 22 acres that the city owns at the City Hall annex at Cleveland Street and Missouri Avenue is worth $9.6-million. "It's good that we have that estimate as a benchmark," Regulski said.

But he questioned parts of the letter that said the "Mormons" were interested in buying the Maas Brothers property downtown, that the city was involved in a joint venture with Bobby Byrd Realty, and that the city will build a City Hall as part of the East End complex.

"This presumption shouldn't be in the official release of the paper unless it is true," Regulski said, "and I don't know that it is true."

Wright said the letter of appraisal would not be part of the request for qualifications sent to developers. "It's only for your edification," he told the commission.

A full appraisal would be done before the city enters any final negotiations or sells the land, he said.