Six weeks ago, the Friendship Trail Bridge — once a beloved recreation trail that attracted at least 600,000 visitors annually — was set to sleep with the fishes. County officials were taking bids from contractors that would have ultimately carried out the 56-year-old structure’s death sentence.
Then, a couple of people shouted — and thousands heard.
Pilot Neil Cosentino, an activist familiar with Hillsborough County Commission chambers, and architect Ken Cowart got vocal about why salvaging the bridge could reap more benefits than destroying it. Press coverage (including a CL cover) and support followed.
“We’ve had a lot of people contacting us,” Cowart said.
Earlier this month commissioners were poised to award the bridge demolition contract to a bidder willing to do most of it for a mere $5 million (prior cost estimates were nearly three times that). Instead, they gave it a lifeline — another month for a loosely organized group of activists and businesspeople to come up with a plan to save it.
For Cowart, proponents for salvaging the bridge are well beyond the question of whether the bridge should be saved.
“We’re now in the ‘how,’” he said.
The county commission, however, still hasn’t gotten past “if.”
Kevin Thurman is a political and marketing consultant working with the group (everyone who’s in on this effort is doing so on a volunteer basis).
He said advocates for saving the bridge have assembled a group of professionals from various fields to assess the bridge’s engineering needs, conduct outreach, develop a nonprofit business plan, and raise money. He said the plan, numbers and all, will be ready by the commission’s first regular meeting in May.
He believes the fundamental problem of the last four years — the Friendship Trail Bridge was shut down in late 2008 — has been a lack of innovation.
“We have two meetings and two reports,” he said, “then sit on it for four years. The government should’ve asked the public, ‘Do you have a better idea?’”
The only other option explored, as far as he’s seen, was to turn either end of the bridge into fishing piers.
“We have a lot of good public servants who aren’t looking for creative solutions,” Thurman said. “Efficiency is seen too often as just a numbers game. They don’t think outside of the box.”
Cowart and several others — including a bridge engineer with 40 years’ experience working on restorations like the one that would occur on the Friendship — went out on a boat last Wednesday to document the extent of the bridge’s repair needs.
“We documented some spans that definitely need work,” Cowart said. But they believe significant portions of the bridge are salvageable, and that removing the most decrepit parts and saving the stronger portions is the way to go. He notes that the study that resulted in the trail’s condemnation in 2008 investigated its low-span approaches, the parts of the bridge most susceptible to saltwater decay. Bridge supporters say a good alternative to demolition might be to replace only those lengths that are questionable in terms of safety.
For example, said Thurman, the “road deck” is damaged, and possibly weighing down on the entire structure it overlies. He said that could be swapped out for a lighter material without impacting the ability for emergency vehicles to access the bridge if needed.
“What we’re trying to do here is show that there are options,” Thurman said. “They can actually consider repairing it for cheaper.”
The big question, as always, is how to fund it.
“We’re looking at what leases can do, and permits can do in terms of raising money,” Thurman said. “We all agree that we don’t want to cost taxpayers millions of dollars. It needs to produce value, and not just suck money.”
This could mean leases for kayak rentals, permits for selling handmade soaps; you name it.
The vast majority of funding for bridge repairs would have to come from private donations, grants, and, to some degree, government.
“Look; we’re already spending money on demolishing the bridge,” Thurman said.
There are at least a half-dozen local and national nonprofit organizations that might be able to spare some cash for this project. All Tampa Bay needs to do, Thurman said, is figure out how to pitch it. Part of a successful pitch may lie in the park’s uniqueness.
“There’s no [other] pedestrian bridge that crosses any bay,” he said.
Cowart said the effort to save the bridge has caught the eye of some monied parties.
“We have some developers that are interested,” he said. “Several prominent business leaders have expressed interest.”
To all invested in the effort, the fight to save the bridge isn’t just about the bridge. It’s about preserving the best parts of Tampa Bay’s identity. It’s also about having a voice in the local political processes that shape our everyday lives.
“The way we’ve been doing things has let us fall behind cities like Austin,” he said. “It’s the negative attitude. It needs to die.”
For Neil Cosentino, who fought for the trail’s initial opening in the late 1990s after it closed to auto traffic, the crusade to save the bridge is refreshing.
“What a challenge. But what an opportunity,” he wrote in an email to CL. “It could almost be a thesis. It really is a saga. There are so many good how-to lessons to be learned by activists, government, and the media.”
The question now is whether the proposal, which the groups will present to the county commission on May 2, can shake the commissioners’ skepticism.