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Pinellas Commission delays Dunedin Causeway Bridge decision
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[Image]
Photo courtesy PINELLAS COUNTY
The public prefers a Florida Vernacular style bridge, similar to the one in this photo, to replace the aging main bridge on the Dunedin Causeway.
[Image]
Photo courtesy of PINELLAS COUNTY
A mid-level bridge is preferred due to the grade, which is only slightly steeper than the current bridge.
CLEARWATER – Pinellas County Commissioners were poised to decide on Tuesday between three alternatives for the replacement of the Dunedin Causeway Bridge. Instead, they chose to delay the decision to gather more information.

The dilemma is making a choice between the least expensive option or the one preferred and recommended. There is some concern that the choice could affect the likelihood of receiving federal funding to help pay for bridge replacement project.

The approximately 2 mile-long project runs from Honeymoon Island State Park, west of Royal Steward Arms Parkway east to the intersection of Gary Place/Gary Circle on Ward Island.

Commissioners need to decide between alternatives for replacing the aging main bridge and the tidal relief bridge to move forward with the process. Alternatives for the main bridge include no-build, low-level movable bridge, mid-level movable bridge and high-level movable bridge. Two alternatives are in play for the tidal relief bridge: no-build and low-level fixed bridge.

Specifications for the low-level movable alternative call for a 21-foot vertical clearance with a maximum grade of 3 percent, which is the same as the existing bridge. Estimated cost is $67.7 million. A mid-level movable bridge would have a 35-foot vertical clearance, eliminating the need for about half the bridge openings that occur now. The maximum grade also would be about 3 percent. A benefit would be the potential for reduced damage from storm waves and corrosion. Estimated cost is $71.9 million.

The most economical choice is the high-level fixed alternative with a 65-foot vertical clearance, which would eliminate the need for bridge openings entirely. The maximum grade would be 5 percent on both approaches. It also would provide a potential benefit of reduced damage from storm waves and corrosion. Estimated cost is $50.7 million.

While the high-level is the least costly, it presents several problems including the steep grade that could make it difficult for some pedestrians who use the Pinellas Trail that is part of the bridge. In addition, the high level just doesn’t fit the character of the community.

Dunedin Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski said the mid-level bridge, which is the one most preferred in citizen surveys and the one preferred by the Dunedin City Commission, would be equal to a 3 ˝ story building in height and not look too out of place, as opposed to the high-level that would be 6 ˝ stories high. She said the high-level would be disproportionate in size to the surrounding environment.

She also pointed out that the area surrounding the bridge was a widely used recreational area and the bridge itself was used to reach a state park – Honeymoon Island. She said the causeway should be considered an extension of that state park.

“This is not just about cost, it is about the heart of a community,” she said.

But, commissioners weren’t just concerned about the initial difference in cost to build a new bridge, the ongoing operations and maintenance expenses also were considered. Currently, the county pays $300,000 a year to operate and maintain the movable bridge. Costs to operate and maintain a new movable mid-level bridge is estimated at $224,000 a year. It would require about half the openings a day as the current bridge, about two per day.

The fact that the bridge provides access to a state park and the low number of openings needed sparked a couple of ideas presented by Commissioner Karen Seel.

Seel said she had talked to the Florida Department of Transportation about providing funding to help pay for the bridge since it goes to a state park but had not yet received an answer. She said she wanted to explore other partnerships and funding sources especially for the ongoing operations and maintenance costs.

“I’m not prepared to make a decision today,” she said.

Cost of operating and maintenance comes from the county’s Transportation Fund, which gets most of its money from the gas tax. The fund is no longer providing enough to pay for expenses due mostly to today’s fuel-efficient vehicles. Staff estimates that the fund will be depleted by 2022.

The ongoing cost of operations and maintenance is a bigger obstacle than the difference in cost to build the two bridges. If the federal government provides 80 percent of the funding, Pinellas County would be on the hook for either $10 million (for the high-level) or $14 million (for the mid-level) in construction costs.

Seel’s other idea involves the U.S. Coast Guard, which has authority over the bridge and navigation requirements. Seel wants staff to contact the Coast Guard and make sure they require that boats be able to pass under the bridge since she says there is an alternate route available.

Mayor Ward Bujalski suggested that a decision that went against the wishes of Dunedin residents and others who use the bridge and the Pinellas Trail could be a problem when the county needs voters to renew the Penny for Pinellas, which will pay the county’s share of the cost of the bridge replacement project.

She also suggested that federal funding could be threatened if residents protested the county’s decision, creating controversy. She urged the commission to listen to what the public was saying and do what’s “best for Dunedin.”

Commissioner Pat Gerard remarked that she was surprised by the “adversarial tone” from the mayor.

“This is a lot of money,” Gerard said. “We have to decide what’s best for the county.”

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