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Officials consider options for repair or replacement of Tarpon Springs' Beckett Bridge

TARPON SPRINGS — It could qualify as a national historic place, but experts say Beckett Bridge is also "functionally obsolete."

It got a tune-up in 2011. It's due for another in 2017. And by 2020, the county-owned drawbridge will simply be too old to keep up.

"It's not cost-effective to continue repairing it," said Tony Horrnik, county senior engineer and project manager.

So Pinellas County is examining options for possibly overhauling the structure. Ideas include replacing the bridge entirely, with either a new drawbridge or a higher fixed bridge. Also under consideration: renovating the bridge, demolishing it without replacing it, or doing nothing at all.

The Tarpon Springs City Commission will hear the county's presentation Tuesday. Once the county has cost and time estimates for each of the options, a public meeting in January will give locals an opportunity to chime in.

But right now, Horrnik says replacement seems to be one of the most attractive options.

Built in 1924 as a wooden structure, Beckett Bridge was rebuilt with concrete in 1956. It was repaired in 1976 and closed for a prolonged period during 1996 fixes. The renovation stalled, inconveniencing residents, as the bridge's foundation unexpectedly shifted and sank.

Earlier this year, the bridge closed for two days when an expansion joint came loose, sticking out into traffic.

The bridge essentially extends Tarpon Avenue, connecting Spring Boulevard and Riverside Drive over Whitcomb Bayou. It's also an evacuation route.

Beckett Bridge is unmanned, with two-hour notice required to raise the drawbridge. In recent years, it has opened about 20 times annually.

The bridge has a sufficiency rating of 44.9 percent. Bridges rated under 50 percent could be candidates for federally funded replacement.

The project development and engineering study to create options is the first step toward seeking federal transportation grants. The study also encompasses environmental factors, including any possible effects on manatees.

To fund the study, the county allocated $352,000 from Penny for Pinellas sales taxes and $398,000 in federal transportation grants, said county spokesman Dave Baker.

The study is projected to wrap up by the end of 2013, when the county and Federal Highway Administration would have to approve whichever option is selected before any work could start.

Beckett Bridge would lose its eligibility for the National Registry of Historic Places if it's replaced, according to Horrnik, the project manager. In order to preserve the historic status, the county would have to maintain the core structure of beams and columns.

But the bridge has a slew of electrical, mechanical and structural problems. Its foundation is still settling. Its parts are so old that they're often expensive and hard to acquire for repairs.

One major concern of Horrnik's is making the bridge "comfortable" — as in, wide and safe enough for vehicles, bicyclists and pedestrians. Beckett Bridge has narrow sidewalks that don't meet disability standards, no bike lanes and a weight restriction. Its two lanes aren't wide enough for school buses to use.

A replacement bridge could last for 75 years, the study estimates. Renovations could give the bridge 25 years.

In St. Pete Beach, a $40 million fixed bridge is under construction to replace the Pinellas Bayway drawbridge. That work will continue through late 2014 or early 2015.

In Clearwater, the 74-foot-tall Memorial Causeway Bridge was completed in 2005 to take the place of a narrow drawbridge.

Of the county-owned structures, Belleair Bluffs ditched its drawbridge. Two still exist along the Dunedin Causeway and Park Boulevard in Seminole.

Of course, the historic Beckett Bridge will always be immortalized through scenes in the recent movie Dolphin Tale, in which lead character Sawyer Nelson pedals over it twice on his bicycle.

Stephanie Wang can be reached at (727) 445-4155 or