The Friendship Trail Bridge is closed and as far as Pinellas County government is concerned, it should be demolished.
CLEARWATER – Pinellas County Commissioners unanimously approved a recommendation from the county administrator Oct. 16 to transfer ownership of the Friendship Trail Bridge to Hillsborough County.
If accepted, it would end a relationship dating back to Oct. 15, 1997, when the Florida Department of Transportation transferred ownership of the Old Gandy Bridge to Pinellas and Hillsborough. The counties had lobbied to save the bridge for use as a trail linking Pinellas and Hillsborough, and FDOT eventually agreed to the plan.
When FDOT transferred ownership of the bridge, the counties received $7 million – the amount the state had planned to spend to demolish the old structure, which opened to traffic in 1956.
The $7 million was used to refurbish the bridge with some money left over for operating and maintenance.
The Friendship Trail Bridge opened to the public in 1999 with operations and maintenance governed by an interlocal agreement between the two counties. Thousands used the trail over the years and it quickly became a popular attraction for residents and guests.
All was well until an engineering report issued in December 2008 said there was a potential that the bridge could collapse due to structural problems. Not long after, the trail bridge was closed permanently.
In April 2010, engineers reassessed the condition of the bridge and gave a repair estimate of $48 million. The counties agreed the only course of action was to demolish the structure and started budgeting money to get it done.
Hillsborough County put out a request for proposal for the demolition. American Bridge Company submitted a bid of $4.195 million to take down about 11,000 linear feet of the bridge, plus a bid of just over $1 million to remove the remaining 3,000 linear feet.
Per the interlocal agreement, each county was expected to pay half the costs. Pinellas has already provided $2 million and agreed to put up an additional $515,000 to pay its share of the bid amount.
Hillsborough County was expected to award the bid to American Bridge on April 4, 2012, but the matter was deferred to allow a citizen group working on a plan to save the old bridge a chance to present its case.
A draft plan of the citizen’s group intent was received in May and, after review, Pinellas County staff expressed numerous concerns. Pinellas County recommended that plans continue to demolish the structure by awarding the bid to American Bridge.
County Administrator Bob LaSala sent a letter to Hillsborough County Administrator June 27, stating concerns that if Hillsborough delayed awarding the bid, the demolition cost could go up, which could result in Hillsborough asking for more money from Pinellas.
“Given Pinellas County’s financial situation, I cannot recommend any further increase in contribution for demolition cost from Pinellas County in the future,” LaSala wrote.
He also expressed safety and liability concerns.
“Any additional delay to the demolition to the structure increases both counties exposure to the risk the deteriorated bridge presents,” LaSala wrote.
Merrill responded to LaSala’s letter on June 28, writing that the Hillsborough Commission had voted June 27 not to award the bid for demolition.
“As you know there are proposals currently on the table from private groups advocating for the continued operation of the bridge for recreation and tourism,” Merrill wrote. “Additional due diligence on these proposals is required before a specific course of action can be recommended. The Hillsborough Commission has now given the advocacy groups more time to complete their due diligence.”
Merrill wrote that he had informed his commission that Pinellas was not willing to pay more than the $2 million plus the $515,000 for the demolition.
“Secondly, Hillsborough County should not expect that Pinellas County will agree to share in the construction or maintenance costs of a new bridge,” Merrill wrote.
LaSala now recommends that Pinellas transfer ownership of the bridge to Hillsborough County. The move would relieve Pinellas of all rights, obligations and liabilities regarding the bridge.
The transfer would include two gateway towers, adjacent to the western end of the bridge on the condition that if the bridge is ever demolished and Hillsborough wants to dispose of the towers that Pinellas get a chance to move them to another location. Pinellas also agrees to move its restroom facility.
If Hillsborough County agrees, the 1999 interlocal agreement would be terminated.
LaSala told commissioners Oct. 16 that from what he’s heard from Merrill, the Hillsborough Commission “is not likely to accept our offer.”
LaSala said if Hillsborough said no, discussions would continue. County Attorney Jim Bennett said Pinellas County’s obligation was to the demolition. LaSala added that the county was not obligated to be involved in any revamp, enhancement or rebuild.
Commissioner Neil Brickfield asked if it was possible for Pinellas to take down its half of the bridge.
“We can explore that with the attorneys, engineers and environmentalists,” LaSala said.