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Weak bridge survives barge's broadside crash

The causeway bridge has deteriorated so much that city officials and engineers regularly test its soundness by rapping the underside with a hammer.

On Wednesday night, the 65-year-old bridge passed the broadside crash test.

It was unplanned.

A barge carrying a large crane had trouble navigating the channel opening in 10- to 15-knot winds and tore out an 8-foot section of the pedestrian walkway.

Luke Peterson, 6, and his babysitter, Tammie Sheppard, were on the catwalk at the time _ about 6:30 p.m. _ walking his Welsh corgi, Merlin.

"It felt like the whole bridge was shaking and I thought it would fall," said Luke, who lives on nearby Paradise Lane.

"It made that awful, scraping metal sound," Sheppard said. "I'm glad I wasn't in a car sitting on the bridge when it happened. I would have been really frightened."

The crane was coming from the Clearwater Memorial Causeway, where it had been used by a subcontractor working for PCL Civil Constructors Inc., a Canadian bridge builder that has come under fire for its role in two troubled local projects.

PCL is spending almost $10-million to repair four cracked columns on the new bridge that will straddle Clearwater Harbor. The new Memorial Causeway is scheduled to open next September _ 17 months later than originally planned.

PCL also constructed the supports for the elevated lanes of the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway in Tampa. In April, two support columns collapsed, damaging a section of the new bridge and injuring two workers.

Beth Leythem, spokeswoman for PCL, said the company finished using the crane and notified the subcontractor, M.D. Moody. The company's marine division was taking the barge south to Tampa through the Intracoastal Waterway when the crane hit the bridge.

City public works director Don Hambidge said he reached the bridge at 7 p.m., about 30 minutes after the accident. By coincidence, the causeway's monthly inspection was Thursday morning.

Hambidge said the bridge itself was not damaged. Its stability rating on a state sufficiency scale remains 2 out of 100.

Hambidge said the city hoped to repair the damage and reopen the walkway this weekend, though it was unclear how much the repairs would cost or who would pay for them. He said the Coast Guard was still investigating the accident.

Construction on the new causeway is to begin in January. The new, $50-million drawbridge is designed to last 75 years. City engineers have plotted an ambitious construction schedule to open the first half of the bridge by July 2006.

Jim Phillips from E.C. Driver and Associates, the city's bridge consultant, said PCL was among the bidders to replace the two approach bridges to the Treasure Island Causeway. He said the city hopes to select a contractor for the new drawbridge in December. He didn't know if PCL would be bidding on the job.

The city has planned a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the west approach bridge for 2 p.m. Oct. 28 to open that span to four lanes of traffic.

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