TAMPA — When Neil Cosentino heard a northbound span of concrete slicing through Old Tampa Bay was due to be torn down to make way for a new bridge, he had a vision of what could happen instead.
Keep the old span, he thought. Cover it in pedestrian trails and solar panels. Perhaps it could be used for flea markets? Bike paths? Open-air concerts?
“It’s like ice cream and apple pie,” said Cosentino, an 85-year-old Tampa resident and retired U.S. Air Force fighter pilot. “Why would anyone be against something like this?”
Currently, the Howard Frankland Bridge is composed of two spans: One has four southbound lanes, the other four northbound lanes. None are tolled.
The $865.3 million project to transform the region’s most frustrating choke point and essential connection began in 2020. It includes the building of a new eight-lane bridge which will become the new southbound span, with four general-use lanes and four express toll lanes (two in each direction).
When the project is complete in 2025, the current southbound bridge will be flipped northbound. And the span that now carries traffic from St. Petersburg to Tampa, constructed in 1959, is set to be demolished. How, exactly, is yet to be finalized.
The new bridge will include a 12-foot-wide bike and pedestrian trail. “To think that people are going to have a good experience next to eight lanes of traffic?” Cosentino said. “I don’t think so.”
He says there ought to be another open-air route across the bay, and argues repurposing the soon-to-be-rubble span makes more sense than the Florida Department of Transportation’s plan to spend an estimated $35 million demolishing it.
“It’s an honorable idea,” said David Gwynn, local secretary for the transportation department. “But when you get into the details of it, it’s just not practical.”
The department have a slate of reasons to oppose anything but demolition.
A 2011 report identified the Howard Frankland span as vulnerable to wave damage during a hurricane event, said James Jacobsen, a structures maintenance engineer who has been working with the bridge since 1999.
Demolition, he added, is necessary to prevent a future storm from lifting the spans and damaging the newer bridge.
“We can’t afford another Escambia Bay,” he said. In 2004 Hurricane Ivan generated surge powerful enough to knock out a total of 58 spans of the I-10 Bridge, a vital artery between Escambia and Santa Rosa counties in the Panhandle.
The old Howard Frankland bridge also requires substantial maintenance due to corrosion from the salt water — damage which grows exponentially with time and will greatly increase future maintenance costs, he added.
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Maintenance of the span is already “consuming a large part of the budget for bridges in the district,” Jacobsen said. “From a financial standpoint, it didn’t make sense to try to repurpose it.”
Since 2001, FDOT have stewarded eight multi-million dollar projects on the Howard Frankland, mainly on support structure, Jacobsen said.
There are 770 state-owned bridges in the department’s District 7, which encompasses Citrus, Hernando, Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties. The average bridge age is 36 years old, Jacobsen said.
Beyond upkeep costs, department spokesperson Kris Carson said deferring the demolition would cost more as the contractor is already mobilized with the necessary barges and heavy equipment.
Beyond the safety and financial reasons, there are bureaucratic and legal ones: The new bridge project permit states the permittee “will demolish the existing northbound bridge by mechanical means using heavy equipment,” which the department of transportation staff says precludes them from changing course.
The environmental assessment of the construction was also conducted on the assumption the existing span would be demolished. This means the hydraulics, natural resources impacts and potential impacts to birds or other protected species would have to be reevaluated if the old span were to remain, Carson said.
Cosentino launched a campaign called Net Zero Bridge, to repurpose the northbound Howard Frankland. He argues power generated from the solar panel canopy would pay for the upkeep.
He is no stranger to ideas others consider zany. Born in New York, retired in Florida, the St. Petersburg Times described him in 1997 as occupying “the gray area between visionary, eccentric, activist and gadfly.”
At the turn of the century he launched a crusade to build an expressway tunnel under Gandy Boulevard. He tried to get Tampa Bay officials to vie for the 2012 Olympics. He tried to save Tampa’s Houlihan Stadium. He’s been a write-in candidate for at least one state house district. And he was among the pilots who formed a group dubbed “Ye Mystic AirKrewe” and flew in single file, orbiting over the water during Gasparilla.
Among his most prominent qualities? Perhaps his persistence. “His emails clog computers from here to Tallahassee,” wrote The Times in 2002.
In conceptualizing his proposal, he researched a bridge in London, U.K., covered in 4,400 photovoltaic panels which provide about half of the energy for one of the city’s busiest rail stations. He wrote a letter to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, pleading him to take a look.
This is not the first time he has seen promise in the concrete connecting Pinellas and Hillsborough.
A span of the old Gandy Bridge built in 1956 was saved from demolition more than two decades ago by a group — including Cosentino — who wanted to see it reborn as a pedestrian park. The two counties convinced the state to let it stand and give the counties the demolition money to use for upkeep.
Renamed the Friendship TrailBridge, it opened in 1999. People power-walked and in-line skated and strolled babies as boats passed below and jets arced overhead. For the next nine years, 600,000 people hit the pavement annually.
But the 2.6-mile span continued to corrode and began dropping concrete chunks. Just like those naysayers said it would. In 2008, inspectors found dangerous deterioration. Up went barricades.
Community members tried — again — to save the span. Hundreds packed community meetings on both sides of the bay. Of 211 who commented out loud or in writing, only nine were against saving the bridge, according to a 2009 Times article.
The costs of fixing the span were initially estimated at $30 million. But consultants hired by both counties said it would cost half that to secure 10 more years of use.
Still, demolition began in 2015, at a cost of $11 million, Carson said.
Frank Miller, who was the executive director of the nonprofit Friendship Trail Corp, said he’s excited a pedestrian trail will be included in the new Howard Frankland span, a development he doubts would have come to fruition were it not for the popularity of the Friendship TrailBridge. (Though they worked together on the Friendship Trail, Miller has nothing to do with Cosentino’s Howard Frankland vision.)
Miller has recently turned his attention back to the Gandy. The current southbound span, stretching from from Tampa to St. Pete, will turn 50 years old in 2025.
Miller says he wants any refurbishment plans for the bridge to not only include a pedestrian walkway, but a full recreational trail stretching from Tampa Riverwalk to the St. Petersburg pier. He has called it: “A trail of two cities.”
In 2019, he help set up a website detailing their vision, with support from the tourism agency Visit Tampa Bay. The pandemic pressed pause on Miller’s awareness-raising efforts, but he hopes to resume them soon.
Meanwhile, construction for the new Howard Frankland span pushes on.
The state’s department of transportation is resolute in its answer to Cosentino’s pitch: No.
He hasn’t yet secured support from county commissioners on either side of the bay. He has not heard from Secretary Buttigieg. But he says he has until 2025 to change minds.