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Howard Frankland Bridge update: 82 barges. 27 cranes. Two manatee watchers.

The recipe for one of the widest bridges in Florida. Hopefully a less stressful drive, too.
Traffic streams over the existing Howard Frankland Bridge over Old Tampa Bay on Thursday, June 30, 2022, between Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. FDOT is rebuilding the existing northbound bridge, which was originally constructed in 1959, and adding capacity to alleviate traffic congestion.
Traffic streams over the existing Howard Frankland Bridge over Old Tampa Bay on Thursday, June 30, 2022, between Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. FDOT is rebuilding the existing northbound bridge, which was originally constructed in 1959, and adding capacity to alleviate traffic congestion. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Jul. 12|Updated Jul. 12

Rising from the murky waters of the Old Tampa Bay is an archipelago of piles, concrete poles driven deep into the bay floor, and giraffe-like cranes. Here, one of Florida Department of Transportation’s biggest projects in a generation is well underway.

The Howard Frankland Bridge handles some 174,000 car trips per day. Motorists who make the four-mile trip, some with white knuckles and fingers crossed, have lost untold hours on the bridge.

They are hoping, praying, the $865.3 million project to build a new span will ease congestion.

Traffic streams toward St. Petersburg southbound on the Howard Frankland Bridge on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021, where the FDOT is rebuilding the existing northbound bridge, which was originally constructed in 1959, and adding capacity to alleviate traffic congestion.
Traffic streams toward St. Petersburg southbound on the Howard Frankland Bridge on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021, where the FDOT is rebuilding the existing northbound bridge, which was originally constructed in 1959, and adding capacity to alleviate traffic congestion. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Twenty months after construction began, relief remains years away: completion is slated for late 2025.

By the numbers, in construction parlance: About half of the concrete piles for the bridge foundations have been driven into the bay’s bedrock. More than three thousand will be used.

Of the 549 bridge footings, 205 have been constructed, according to Kris Carson, regional spokesperson for the Department of Transportation. Nearly 200 of the 549 bridge columns and 64 of the 226 pier caps have been completed. Beam placement began at the end of May.

In plain English? A lot has been done. A lot is left.

For now, hundreds of workers toil like beavers making a dam, drilling and pounding to the steady thrum of nearby traffic, an ever-present reminder this crossway is both the region’s most frustrating choke point and an essential connector.

The span under construction will become the new southbound bridge, with four general-use lanes, four express toll lanes (two in each direction), and a 12-foot-wide bike and pedestrian trail. Currently, the Howard Frankland (Howard Frankenstein, to some) is composed of two spans: one has four southbound lanes, the other four northbound lanes. None are tolled.

How to go about constructing one of the widest bridges in state history?

First, the 30-inch square piles are shuttled to the Howard Frankland on barges from two concrete plants farther south on the bay.

They make up the initial foundation, which keeps the structure stable by distributing the weight evenly through the ground.

The piles start out the same length but end up protruding from the water, jutting out like a jagged set of organ pipes.

The reason: They hit bedrock at different depths on the uneven bay floor. Most are pounded 85 to 100 feet down. Others, more than 200.

“A multi-million-dollar project atop a mountain range — underwater,” Greg Deese, resident engineer for the Department of Transportation, likes to say.

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Once in place, each pile will be trimmed just above the water line and topped with a bridge footing, a thick concrete slab.

Next, the concrete columns.

Then, pier caps are placed on top, the final component of the bridge’s substructure.

Then come more than 1,700 concrete beams. They give support to the deck and help the pressure pass swiftly toward the foundation.

After that, the deck and an 8-inch roadway are poured over top.

All told, the project involves 172,000 cubic yards of concrete — enough to fill 52 Olympic swimming pools.

Two dedicated “experienced manatee observers” are present whenever work in the water is happening, such as a barge ferrying equipment to and from shore. The site must be checked at least twice daily, in the morning and evening, for manatees that may have become entrapped. So far, workers have spotted the aquatic mammals around the site, but no injuries or deaths have been attributed to the construction of the project.

A worker is transported by skiff as work continues on the new southbound/westbound interstate bridge over Old Tampa Bay between Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, Thursday, June 30, 2022.
A worker is transported by skiff as work continues on the new southbound/westbound interstate bridge over Old Tampa Bay between Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, Thursday, June 30, 2022. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

The design and construction is a joint venture between Atlanta-based Archer Western Construction LLC, part of the Walsh Group, and the civil engineering firm Traylor Bros. Inc. of Evansville, Ind.

Eventually, the span that now carries four lanes of traffic from Tampa to St. Petersburg will switch to northbound traffic and the current northbound bridge will be dismantled, piece by piece. Where the demolished material will go has yet to be determined, Deese said.

On a recent morning, he surveyed the construction site, peering out at the calm bay from blue-lens sunglasses. “A perfect work day,” he said. As perfect a work day that one can ask for during late June in Florida: the sky was clear and the temperature hadn’t yet hit 90 F.

A small skiff ferried pile-driver crews in hard hats between shore and the barges holding equipment. The air carried the sounds of drilling and a whiff of saline. A dolphin dipped in and out of the green-gray water.

Workers off-board from a skiff onto a barge as work continues on the new southbound/westbound interstate bridge over Old Tampa Bay between Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, Thursday, June 30, 2022.
Workers off-board from a skiff onto a barge as work continues on the new southbound/westbound interstate bridge over Old Tampa Bay between Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, Thursday, June 30, 2022. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Here, a team of more than 200, equipped with 27 cranes and 82 barges, toil on the linkage between Tampa’s Westshore district and Pinellas’ Gateway area.

Hillsborough and Pinellas counties can often seem farther away than a four-mile hop across the bay, in large part due to the congestion often besetting the region’s bridges. One of three connecting the counties (the Gandy Bridge and Courtney Campbell Causeway are the others), the Howard Frankland — named for the Tampa rubber magnate who proposed it — is the most traveled. It’s also likely the most cursed at, too.

It opened in 1960, built to handle 30,000 car trips per day. The bridge was seeing about 90,000 car trips per day when the 1990s overhauls expanded the original four-lane roadway to the twin spans and eight lanes now in place.

The history of the bridge is one of reckless speeding, fatal crashes and hours-long delays.

But with an estimated 100,000 people expected to move to Tampa Bay in the next 25 years, it has emerged as the centerpiece of a state plan to deal with the rise in traffic in a region long gridlocked over plans for public transit.

The new span will include a bicycle and pedestrian path, separated from traffic by a concrete barrier. It will connect to existing trails on both sides of the bay and include four resting spots with shade and seating. A portion of the new span is being built to carry heavier loads should voters someday approve plans for a light rail system.

The new bridge should have a lifespan of 75 to 100 years, Deese said. To reduce the risk of water damage, it will be slightly higher than the original span.

When complete, it will be the largest bridge in Florida by deck area, Deese said. Hopefully a less stressful drive, too.

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