As readers of CL know from our coverage of the Friendship Trail Bridge, Hillsborough County Commissioners were poised earlier this spring to spend $4.2 million to raze the once-popular recreational attraction.
Then the bridge won a last-minute reprieve; a group of activists came forward in April to ask that they be given time to work up a proposal to save the structure. That request was granted, and since then the group has met and worked on an almost daily basis on a plan that they contend will make the bridge better and stronger in the long run — or at least for the next 35 years.
The plan was completed this week and handed into the Hillsborough County Commission on Monday. It’s a 70-page document called “A Vision Beyond Demolition,” and it posits that by creating a nonprofit organization that would work with Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, the bridge can be kept alive. The authors say the nonprofit could be funded through grants, local government contributions and revenues from vendors, parking fees and other events. The goal is to raise a total of $12.65 million by 2017 and to keep the bridge in use until 2048, when it would be demolished.
The authors of the plan are architect Ken Cowart, marketing consultants Kevin Thurman and Julia Freeman, and attorney Brian Willis. After thorough analysis of engineering reports, usage studies, and nationwide comparable projects, plus discussions with architects, engineers and lawyers, the team came to a conclusion: “We are certain that the Friendship Trail Bridge can be saved.”
Cowart has been one of the lead voices in this latest effort to save the bridge. (He credits Neil Cosentino, subject of CL's Mar. 15 cover story, with getting the ball rolling.) The new plan calls for a series of benchmarks that have to be reached before moving on to the next level, Cowart says.
For example, his team is asking initially for Hillsborough County to give them permission to continue working on the project until next February, when they would have to prove that their ambitious plan is feasible. If that benchmark is reached, the coalition would then take four years to raise the capital but begin construction a year earlier, in 2016. The goal would then be to open for business in 2017.
The plan calls for a partial demolition of damaged sections; light repair of sound portions of the bridge; and replacement of the damaged decking sections of the bridge with new, more durable construction — in short, salvage what can be saved and replace what can’t be.
The idea is to form a public-private partnership with both Pinellas and Hillsborough Counties to run the bridge, with the long-term goal of creating a non-profit organization that would work with the two local governments to manage day-to-day operations and maintenance.
The nonprofit would raise the public and private money to maintain it, as well as “guide the vision of the bridge.”
The authors of the plan say the nonprofit will raise $13 million to pay for the repairs, with $6.5 million coming from government and foundation grants (including $3 million that was already earmarked for its demolition). Once the bridge is constructed, they expect to raise more money from vendors, events and parking fees.
The 2.6-mile bridge was built in 1956 for westbound traffic next to the Gandy Bridge. It was used until 1997 when the state department of Transportation deemed it structurally deficit unless costly repairs were made. They never were, but after the bridge was mothballed for two years, it reopened in 1999 for pedestrian and recreational use. But it closed down in November of 2008, after a state inspection determined that there were significant structural problems with the bridge’s deck.
Bridge activists say they will present their report to Hillsborough County Commissioners
at their next regularly scheduled board meeting on May 16 at their board meeting on June 6. Supporters are invited to take part in a “lagoon picnic” at the Hillsborough base of the bridge on Saturday May 12 from 3 p.m. to sunset. For more information on the Friendship Bridge crusade, go to friendshiptrailbridge.com.