Can this bridge be saved?

Neil Cosentino and supporters are fighting to give the Friendship Trail Bridge a second lease on life.

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click to enlarge OFF LIMITS: Cosentino on the Hillsborough side of the condemned bridge, which he helped reclaim the first time around in the late ’90s. - Photo by Shanna Gillette
Photo by Shanna Gillette
OFF LIMITS: Cosentino on the Hillsborough side of the condemned bridge, which he helped reclaim the first time around in the late ’90s.

Not too long ago, the Friendship Trail Bridge was a vibrant public place, alive with joggers and fishermen.

Now, it’s forlorn, abandoned. Eroded parking lots and chain-link fence clutch both ends of the 2.6-mile trail, which was Gandy Bridge’s westbound lane before it was given over to pedestrians in 1999. Tumbling rocks, abandoned concrete and mangroves dotted with plastic shopping bags line the waterfront on either side. Aside from a few occasional fishermen casting their lines in the shadow of the old Gandy, the area is vacant; the bridge is doomed to live out the rest of its days collecting rain and bird crap.

But not if Neil Cosentino has anything to do with it.

To Cosentino, this condemned structure could be an economic pillar. Where county officials on both sides of the bay see corrosion and eventual collapse, he sees potential for something that’s a cross between Clearwater’s Sunsets at Pier 60 and Downtown St. Pete’s Saturday Morning Market.

“Try to picture this,” he says, sweeping his arms across the derelict bridge’s western terminus. “Food trucks, vendors, kayakers, rollerbladers. There’s so much here. You can say it’s dying, but it’s not.”

Almost everyone else seems to think the thing is toast.

No one has been allowed to set foot beyond those chain-link fences since November 2008. In April 2010, the Hillsborough County Commission, with the blessing of its Pinellas counterpart, elected to have someone blow it up. They approved funding for destroying just part the bridge — the two access points and the mid-section — in January 2011, though they weren’t sure how they’d fund the rest.

The $4.4 million partial demolition is scheduled to start in May, once Hillsborough County picks a bidder to do the deed. Hillsborough and Pinellas are sharing the bill, and the latter has reportedly already transferred its share of the money across the bay.

Cosentino is battling doggedly to stop the demolition from happening — again. And he’s not alone.

This is not Cosentino’s first crusade in Tampa Bay — far from it. His gentlemanly demeanor and Brooklyn accent are well-known in Hillsborough County Commission chambers, where’s he’s given public comment on an almost bizarre array of issues. A perennial candidate — he ran most recently against incumbent Mark Sharpe in 2010 — he was also a vocal part of the bid to get the 2012 Summer Olympics here. Now 74, he's constantly generating new ideas from his think tank, Bay World, including a national public newspaper and a “global airport."

He conducts all of these battles with graceful humility and utter lack of faith in government efficacy. A retired Air Force pilot who flew planes in Vietnam, he’s fond of comparing his activism to dogfighting (aerial combat).

“It’s intellectually challenging,” he said. “But it’s real.”

This is also not the first time Cosentino has fought to save the old Gandy. When the Florida Department of Transportation first shut it down (and handed the counties the keys) in 1997, he and a few other activists successfully petitioned to have it reopened as a recreational trail two years later, and the Friendship Trail Bridge was born — reportedly the longest pedestrian trail over water.

Alan Snel, who heads bicycle advocacy group Southwest Florida Bicycle United Dealers (Swiftbud), said the trail was a huge draw for local and traveling cyclists and runners.

“It’s part of our identity,” he said. “It provides continual access for people who don’t want to be in cars to experience the water and the bay.”

In 2008, though, state officials abruptly shut the bridge down after an inspection during which they reportedly saw chunks of concrete falling from the structure. It was on a Thursday afternoon. Commuters reportedly pulled up to the trailhead on either side for a post-workday jog only to find county officials chaining up the gates indefinitely.

An SDR Engineering Consultants report suggested that repairs would cost at least $15 million. The next year, engineering firm EC Driver prepared an even more damning report, one that more than tripled the first repair estimate.

Pete Yauch, Pinellas County’s director of transportation and stormwater, said the estimate shot up to $48 million because the first report took only the old Gandy’s horizontal components into account, while EC Driver looked at the whole thing.

There was also the question of whether pounding waves and salt air could decay the thing to the point where it would eventually collapse under its own weight.

“The potential is there,” Yauch said. “It’s probably not something that’s going to collapse from someone walking over it.”

Throw in some storm-force winds, though, and he said disaster could ensue. And what if emergency vehicles need to access a structure deemed unsafe for cars?

“Say someone trips and falls and an ambulance goes to pick them up,” he said.

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