Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Pinellas County votes to send Friendship Trail Bridge demolition funds across the bay

Posted By on Tue, May 22, 2012 at 6:52 PM

The Pinellas County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday afternoon to allocate the final portion of their funds towards the demolition of the Friendship Trail Bridge.

The Board voted to move $515,000 to Hillsborough County to complete their $2.5 million half of the costs to demolish the bridge. In accordance with an interlocal agreement to share maintenance costs of the bridge with their neighbor, Hillsborough will foot the remaining half of the $5.2 million bill.

The bridge has been closed down since December of 2008 after the Florida Department of Transportation determined that significant damage due by environmental elements made it unsafe for pedestrian use. In April 2010, engineers assessed that it would not be feasible to repair the bridge. Commissioners in both counties voted to have it demolished soon afterward.

Public outcry over the demolition plan led to the deference of the demolition contract until June 6, to allow a special interest group time to develop a plan to save The Friendship Trail.

Community interest to preserve the bridge had saved it once before in 1995 after the FDOT shut it down to vehicular traffic. This led to it being reopened for pedestrian use in 1999.

As CL reported in April, architect Ken Cowart and his group proposed to repair the stronger parts of the bridge while replacing the most damaged parts. They proposed to replace the 272 low level spans, the parts most damaged by sea spray and crashing waves, with prefabricated aluminum and metal steel spans, while keeping the rest of the bridge intact with minor repairs.

This could give the Friendship trail a second life as a multi-use walkway for strollers, cyclists, fishermen and vendors. A 70-page plan submitted to Hillsborough County stated that bridge could have over 680,000 visitors per year and pump over 14 million into economies in both counties. The plan's estimated costs are around 20 million dollars. They proposed setting up a non-profit to privately raise most of the funds as well as work with both counties for additional funding.

As reported by CL last week, Pinellas county public works staff did not find the plan to be viable alternative to demolition.

Jorge Quintas, director of engineering and technical support in Pinellas’ public works department said that they the proposal’s estimates did not encompass all the costs necessary, and it was better to demolish and start anew then “doctor up something that is way past its twilight.” Quintas said that the staff recommends the demolition at what he describes as an “incredibly fair price.”

Engineering Consultants EC Driver reviewed the draft plan and wrote in a letter the Hillsborough County Public Works Department that it “grossly underestimated” the poor condition of the bridge and the costs for repairs. The letter stated that the shared pathways and height of the repaired bridge did not meet FDOT standards.

Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch told CL during a recess that all is not lost for the Bridge. If the group behind the business plan can get a feasibility study that the contractors of the demolition will honor, it may buy them some time. Welch said it looks like an uphill battle in acquiring the funds.

“We all want to save the bridge, but in this climate, the counties don’t have the funds.” said Welch.

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