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HILLSBOROUGH CLOSES BRIDGE

Officials say it's not because of the Minnesota bridge collapse.

Two days after the Minnesota bridge collapse, Hillsborough County on Friday closed a crumbling two-lane bridge over a suburban creek.

The closed bridge, which handles about 575 cars a day, is in northwest Hillsborough, where Memorial Highway crosses Double Branch Creek.

"I know it sounds unbelievable because of the timing," said Bob Gordon, Hillsborough's director of public works.

The announcement came a day after regional transportation officials sought to assure motorists of the safety of older bridges, including high-traffic spans along the Pinellas coastline.

On Friday, amid phone calls from concerned drivers, they continued to insist that area bridges are safe.

Gordon said the bridge in Hillsborough was shut down because engineers had decided Wednesday, two hours before the Minnesota collapse, that it was "critically deficient."

Chunks of concrete from the 45-year-old bridge have fallen into the creek about 10 feet below, exposing steel reinforcement, Gordon said. The fear is salty water could weaken the steel, which could crumple and make the concrete crack and break off in chunks.

Engineers estimated repairs would cost $118,000. Because the bridge is slated for replacement in 2010, county commissioners will decide Aug. 15 whether to go ahead with repairs or keep the bridge closed until a new one is built.

Beach bridges safe?

Four times a day, Capt. J.D. Noell steers a casino cruise ship beneath the John's Pass Bridge, which links Treasure Island and Madeira Beach.

Is he worried about its sturdiness, since transportation engineers have acknowledged that it's the worst state-operated bridge in the Tampa Bay area?

"No," said Noell, 38. "It's been a good bridge."

Still, he added, "I'm definitely glad they're putting in a new one."

Every day, tens of thousands of cars cross three Pinellas bridges - John's Pass, the Pinellas Bayway and Belleair Causeway - that are being replaced or are targeted for replacement.

On the state's 100-point sufficiency scale, those three bridges rate 39.4, 42.5 and 49.7 respectively, numbers that won't necessarily inspire confidence in the general public.

But the bridges are stable and safe, said Pepe Garcia, the state official who oversees them.

A bridge's "sufficiency rating" takes into account factors such as its age, design and upkeep. It reflects the bridge's current condition compared to how it would be if it was built to today's standards, Garcia said.

"The smaller the number, the more the bridge needs to be brought up to date," said Garcia, a Transportation Department engineer.

The number doesn't equal the bridge's overall safety level, he said. Still, when a rating dips below 50, the bridge owner - the local, county or state government - starts exploring replacement. When it falls to 20, the bridge must be replaced.

"That doesn't mean it will happen overnight," Garcia said. "You could have bridges with a 10 or 12 or even less that are still operating."

Here's a look at three bridges:

John's Pass Bridge: Only 35 years old, it's aging quickly because currents have worn away the sand beneath its pilings. But relief is imminent: A new span should be ready for drivers early next year, said Transportation Department spokeswoman Kris Carson. In the meantime, engineers are confident in a temporary fix: "riprap," large rocks that shield the bridge's foundations from erosion.

The state removed the old southbound span, so traffic in both directions is using the two-lane northbound span. All traffic will shift to the new span in 2008, and the second span should be finished by 2010.

Pinellas Bayway: These two 45-year-old bridges were scheduled to have been replaced by now. There's no funding or timetable to do that yet.

Garcia reviewed their inspection reports Friday and said he found nothing to concern him.

But if the Tierra Verde bridge isn't replaced by 2012, the Transportation Department plans to spend nearly $14-million to replace significant portions of it, Carson said.

Belleair Causeway: Its original estimated life span was 50 years. It's been in use for 52.

A new $72.5-million bridge should be finished, and the old one shut down, in 2009.

But what about the 17,500 drivers a day who take the old bridge between Largo and the Pinellas beaches?

"It's got some significant structural conditions, but not to the point where there's any danger of collapse," said Pinellas County bridge engineer Tony Horrnik.

Cracks on its vertical supports have been repaired, he said. Part of the reason the bridge has a lower sufficiency rating is traffic safety: It has narrow lanes.

"If by any chance I felt there was the slightest possibility of failure," Horrnik said, "I would basically close down that bridge.

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