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Petition: Re-Open Friendship Trail Bridge, Tampa Bay

Friendship Trail Bridge. - Julie Busch Branaman
Friendship Trail Bridge. - Julie Busch Branaman
Tampa architect Ken Cowart and community activist Neil Cosentino may have found the solution to reopening the Friendship Trail Bridge that runs parallel to the Gandy Bridge between south Tampa and north St. Petersburg.

Cowart, the organizer of Pecha Kucha events, and Cosentino, who initially led the effort more than a decade ago to convert the old Gandy Bridge into the Friendship Trail, are gathering community and financial support to lease the span from Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

"It’s not a unique idea,'' says Cowart, pointing out that there are precedents in Tampa Bay for the leasing of government structures to private entities. For instance, Richard Gonzmart, president of the Columbia Restaurant, recently won a bid to lease and renovate the Tampa Water Works building as a restaurant.

The old bridge was closed to automobile and truck traffic in 1997 after a new bridge was built to replace it. The old bridge was then reopened as a linear park for joggers, walkers, bicyclists, skateboarders, roller bladers and strollers from 1999 to 2008, when an engineering report found age-related structural damage and estimated repair costs in excess of $40 million. Ever since, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties have been working toward demolition of the bridge.

"No one was looking at leasing the bridge in the last five years,'' Cowart says, attributing the lack of attention to the faltering economy. Now, however, he sees a future for the bridge for recreational use through private leasing.

A more recent study by University of South Florida professors shows that "the bridge has a very low probability of failure under self-weight alone'' before 2029.

This provides a window of opportunity for Cowart and Cosentino to team with Hillsborough and Pinellas activists to gather support and funding to lease the bridge and perform further studies to assess its safety for pedestrians and cyclists. These tests would be more thorough than the initial studies, using special technologies to inspect the internal structures of the bridge. 

Taxpayers Could Benefit

Cowart and Cosentino believe that leasing the old Gandy Bridge to a private entity could benefit both counties as well.

"This would release the counties from maintenance costs and liability,'' Cowart says, citing budget deficits as another reason to postpone planned demolition, which will cost at least $4.4 million.

Citizens on both sides of the Tampa Bay have already begun showing their support for the effort by signing an online petition. Cowart urges supporters to contact their commissioners in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties to express support for the bridge's salvation.

"This bridge was designed for two-ton trucks,'' Cowart says, "and now it's deemed unsafe for soccer moms with strollers? That doesn’t make sense.''

Theresa Woods is a graduate of the University of South Florida, freelance writer and literature nerd living in Tampa. In her spare time, she writes, contemplates her place in the universe and enjoys being an all-purpose geek with her friends. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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