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Treasure Island ratchets up bridge tolls sharply

It could be worse, city commissioners said Tuesday as they raised the cost of an annual bridge pass from $30 to $80. They also voted to increase the individual toll for drivers without a pass, from 50 cents each way to $1.

The new charges go into effect at 12:01 a.m. Jan. 1. The bar code passes go on sale at City Hall beginning Dec. 15.

"This is not something we do lightly," Mayor Mary Maloof said Tuesday night. "We must raise the toll in order to finance the bridge."

The city needs to come up with $25-million to $28-million to replace the deteriorating Causeway Bridge.

City Manager Chuck Coward told commissioners the city could borrow up to $25-million next year if they raised the tolls to $80. The city needs to show at least a six-month history of toll collections to convince investors it can cover any bridge debts.

Coward has said it's possible commissioners still could have to raise taxes before the new bridge is completed in 2006.

Originally, a majority of commissioners said they would support raising the pass to $100. But commissioners unanimously agreed at the lower rate to present a united front when the city goes to borrow money next fall.

So far, the city has paid cash for the two approach bridges, depleting most of its causeway bridge fund. The first half of each of those bridges should be open around Thanksgiving. Then traffic will be routed to the new lanes so that the final lanes can be built.

Designs for the new drawbridge are about 30 percent complete. Construction is scheduled to begin in February 2005, with the first half of the bridge to open in summer 2006.

The contractors will be demolishing one half at a time to keep the bridge open for most of the construction. But the final phase will require that the bridge be closed from April to June 2006.

If the bridge is delayed even for a month, that closing will be put off four months because the bridge must remain open during hurricane season when it might be necessary to evacuate the beach community.

And for every month the construction is delayed, the city runs the risk of having to make expensive interim repairs. The city's public works director keeps getting warning letters from state Department of Transportation officials who have rated the existing structure a 3.3 on a scale of 100.

Right now, contractors are finishing a $500,000 emergency job to fix holes in the drawbridge. Those repairs are expected to be finished by Thanksgiving as well.

Also this month, commissioners are planning to take a last look at the designs for the $65-million bridge, possibly to scale back some of the project.

Coward said the city could save about $5-million by eliminating two lanes at the tollbooth and by cutting or modifying the pedestrian walkway, custom bridge railings, entrance towers and trellises planned along the new bridge that would give it the Florida Vernacular theme being developed throughout downtown.

Bridge designers also are continuing discussions with St. Petersburg residents who live near the toll plaza. Those homeowners want the bridge plaza to remain four lanes, while Treasure Island residents want two additional passes-only lanes.

Treasure Island still hopes to get some state and federal grants to help pay for the project, although none were available this year. On Tuesday, commissioners voted to hire the firm of Fowler & O'Quinn to lobby state legislators in Tallahassee for bridge money. Last month, they hired a Virginia lobbyist to pursue federal grants for the project.

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