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Simple design sets Belleair bridges apart

The questions were natural and fair, said Belleair Bluffs Mayor Chris Arbutine.

As plans moved forward to build new Belleair Causeway bridges, residents were reading about several cracked columns during construction of Clearwater's Memorial Causeway bridge that will delay completion by 17 months and add as much as $10 million to the total cost.

Then in April, a section of the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway collapsed.

"Of course it was in the minds of residents," Arbutine said, particularly since HDR, the Tampa company designing the Belleair Causeway Bridges, also did the initial designs for the beleaguered Memorial Causeway bridge.

County and HDR officials understand the concerns, but say there are major differences in the two projects.

For one, the Belleair Causeway Bridges are much shorter and employ a simpler design.

The Memorial Causeway bridge is curved. While more aesthetically bold, that presents difficult engineering issues, said Tony Horrnik, the county's senior engineer.

By contrast, the Belleair Causeway Bridges are a relatively straight shot.

"That really simplifies the design," Horrnik said.

And while HDR did the initial design for the Memorial Causeway bridge, the problems there arose with the extensive, cost-saving redesigns, which HDR did not do, Horrnik said.

The county won't refuse redesign suggestions for the Belleair Causeway Bridges, but "if value engineering is accepted, it will be very carefully examined,' Horrnik said.

Wholesale redesigns for the Belleair Causeway Bridges are unlikely anyway, said project manager Douglas Butler of HDR.

"The two bridges are different types of structures altogether," Butler said.

Contractors for the Memorial Causeway bridge used a relatively new construction method called segmental cast-in-place. Crews poured the concrete directly onto the deck in alternating, counterbalancing segments on each side of a series of columns. The cracks were found in four columns, two on each side of the bridge.

The Belleair Causeway Bridges will be constructed using a simpler and more conventional method of lifting and setting prefabricated sections on top of piers, Butler said.

Horrnik said the county also has taken a "very conservative" approach to ensure the ground under the piers can handle the bridges. Test borings down to 75 to 100 feet will be conducted at each pier location.

County and HDR officials met with the Belleair Bluffs Civic Association shortly after the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway collapse.

"Initially there was a lot of concern, "What the heck is going on here?"' Arbutine said. "I think we left satisfied everything would be okay."

The existing Belleair Beach Causeway Bridges, which connect Belleair Shores and Belleair Bluffs, were completed in 1950 and have outlived their original life expectancy of 50 years. The bridges are now classified by the state as obsolete, and rising maintenance and operating costs from deterioration convinced the county a replacement is in order.

Residents agreed, but community controversy arose over bridge options unveiled to the public in July 2001.

During a hearing in January 2003, residents debated three proposed options: a low-level drawbridge with 25-foot clearance for boats, similar to the existing bridge; a mid-level drawbridge with 45-foot clearance; and a high-level, fixed-span bridge with 74-foot clearance.

While the drawbridge options carried a lower construction cost, they are more expensive to maintain and operate, and were deemed significantly more expensive over the long term, Horrnik said.

A fixed-span bridge also eliminates the risk of a mechanical or electrical malfunction with a drawbridge during an emergency evacuation, he said.

Debate over the options divided many in the coastal community, Arbutine said.

"You have people who live in the same building one door away from one another and one wants a drawbridge and the other wants a fixed-span bridge," he said.

The county commissioners agreed to move ahead with plans for a fixed-span bridge immediately north of the existing bridge.

During a public hearing scheduled from 4 to 7 p.m. Wednesday at Largo High School, residents will be presented with two options: the fixed-span bridge or nothing.

Peter B. Ferrara Sr., 80, a resident of Harbor Club condominiums, plans to make one more appeal for a drawbridge.

"I don't feel the battle is lost," Ferrara said.

Ferrara, a retired mechanical engineer who serves on a citizen involvement committee that meets monthly with bridge officials, is convinced the higher fixed-span bridge will "overwhelm the geography and beauty of this bluff area."

He's also concerned that lights on the bridge will "overpower" surrounding neighborhoods.

Another Harbor Club resident and committee member, Bill Balmer, 68, is equally convinced the fixed-span bridge is the way to go.

"I think they made the right choice," said Balmer. "I don't think it's going to create any problems with noise or views."

And it would eliminate traffic backups that occur in front of many residents' driveways when the drawbridge is raised, he said.

Horrnik believes the fixed-span bridge will actually enhance views, because instead of pilings every 40 feet on the existing bridge, the piers on the new bridge would be 150 to 175 feet apart. And the roadway will be higher.

The 1.67-mile, $37-million project includes two bridges: one over the intercoastal and another, smaller bridge over the relief channel.

It is designed with one lane of traffic in each direction, with 8-foot wide sidewalks on each side.

"This is not going to be an ornate bridge," Horrnik said. "But it will be an elegant bridge."

The county hopes to begin construction by mid-2006, with construction to last 18 months to two years.

The Wednesday meeting is intended to be informational, but will include an opportunity for residents to make formal comments and ask questions, Horrnik said. The county will respond to residents later, in writing.

"This is not the kind of meeting where we are going to get into heavy debate," Horrnik said.