This photo shows a view from northwest of the existing Beckett Bridge.
Photo courtesy of URS
This photo shows a view from northwest of what a new movable bridge might look like.
CLEARWATER – Public safety was at the forefront of discussion Oct. 22 on what to do about the Beckett Bridge in Tarpon Springs.
Pinellas County Commissioners unanimously accepted the project development and environmental study Oct. 22 and a recommendation to replace the bridge that spans Whitcomb Bayou, connecting Spring Boulevard and Riverside Drive. A final decision won’t come until at least February during a public hearing on the matter.
However, staff’s recommendation, supported by consultants with URS, formerly known as United Research Services, is to replace the aged bridge with a completely new movable bridge at an estimated cost of $23.6 million. Costs will be recalculated prior to the February meeting.
Some controversy surrounded the meeting with Tarpon Springs’ officials and some residents unhappy that Tuesday’s afternoon meeting had not received special notice. County Administrator Bob LaSala explained that the meeting was not a public hearing, and no binding decisions would be made. He said the agenda had been posted on the county’s website, as it is in advance of all commission meetings.
He gave assurances that the public hearing would contain all possible options and costs for the bridge project, not just the recommended method. The public will get to give input, after which the commission will decide.
“This meeting is to give direction and is not final action,” he said.
Federal law requires a certain process be followed if federal money will be used, including the public hearing, which will be noticed via mail and email to all interested parties who have provided contact information, he said. The county also has a separate webpage for the Beckett Bridge project, pinellascounty.org/beckettbridge. Updated information will be posted to that page as it becomes available along with date and time of the public hearing.
Beckett Bridge has “serious structural shortcomings and needs to be replaced,” LaSala said. “There’s a small group that wants to maintain the historic aspects while achieving structural integrity, but those options are extremely limited.”
Beckett Bridge is a county-owned facility, he added.
Ann Venable with URS explained that the bridge replacement project did require gathering of public input, but the public gets no vote.
“A public hearing is required,” she said. “But, we’ve gone way over and above (that requirement).”
Multiple meetings have been scheduled with civic groups and other interested parties with invitations sent to 5,000 interested parties.
“We’ve tried to engage the public as much as possible,” she said.
She said taking extra time to look for ways to preserve the historical portions of the bridge had delayed the project by about six months.
“There’s not one solution that will make everyone happy,” she said. “The only original parts left are some of the machinery and one arm of the bascule.”
Jim Phillips, the engineering specialist with URS, explained that the current bridge does not meet current standards. The structure is deteriorating. Structural failures prevent the bridge from opening as it was designed to do, so “it doesn’t roll straight back up and down, and it wobbles back and forth.”
The wobbling puts continuing wear on equipment, which is old, worn and no longer reliable, he said.
The existing bridge does not meet current requirements for width. It doesn’t have enough load capacity to carry trucks and other heavy vehicles in use today.
He also pointed out a danger from sinkholes under the piers. When repairs were made in 1979, workers discovered sinkhole elements under the bridge with piers located over voids. Those problems are throughout the entire bridge, he said.
Right now, the bridge is safe, and it undergoes regular inspections. But, it is possible that the bridge could sink “an inch or two,” which would not cause a “catastrophe, but a functional issue,” he said.
“I’m not worried that it could collapse,” he said.
Another concern is that the bridge could get stuck in the open position due to structural and machinery issues.
URS has explored alternatives so the old bridge could be rehabilitated, maintaining the remaining original parts (bascule span and bascule pier) and accommodate wider sidewalks. Phillips said he challenged two of his best engineers to find a way to keep the historical parts of the bridge and still meet the Florida Department of Transportation’s engineering standards.
“It’s not feasible,” he said.
He concluded that it is more cost-effective to replace the bridge now than to continue to repair it in the immediate future and then replace it later.
“A new bridge is preferable,” he said.
Phillips added that much coordination had gone on with FDOT to convince the agency that the alternative of a fixed bridge is not feasible. The U.S. Coast Guard supports the movable bridge. A fixed bridge would require right-of-way needs that would displace residents. For those reasons and others, he said the fixed bridge was eliminated from the study’s recommendations.
County staff and URS recommend a new movable bridge that would be built in the same place, just wider and a bit taller. What it would look like is among the decisions to be made.
Phillips said the current bridge is considered an industrial style. It was constructed in 1924 for the railroad industry.
“There’s not a lot of ornamentation,” he said.
URS has told the Cultural Resource Committee, which advocates historical preservation, that the new bridge could be styled much as the bridge exists now. Beckett Bridge is eligible for the National Historic Register. It is one of the few remaining pre-1965 single-leaf, rolling-lift bascule bridges in the state.
Due to its historical significance, plans must consider ways to maintain the history, using a historic monument on the bridge, an education kiosk in a nearby park or other acceptable method. Phillips showed an example of a bridge where some of the original machinery had been built into a section of the railing.
Phillips said a number of bridge styles existed from which the community could give preferences. The current bridge railings are substandard and have to be replaced and again, many styles are available, he said.
The public hearing in February will provide information, along with updated cost estimates, on all the proposed alternatives, including no build, no build with permanent removal of the existing bridge, rehabilitation without widening, and replacement with either a fixed bridge or a movable bridge. Staff also will present additional information on the recommended movable bridge.
Target date for replacement or rehabilitation of the bridge is the year 2020. If the bridge is rehabilitated in 2020, URS estimates it would last another 25 years and require replacement in 2038. The service life for a new bridge was estimated at 75 years.
Final approval of the project for federal funding lies with the Federal Highway Administration.