Published: June 04, 2012

Firm's critique doesn't deter TrailBridge backers

By Mike Salinero

The group of young professionals who are trying to save the Friendship TrailBridge say their mission is still on track despite withering criticism from a private engineering company.

Hillsborough County public works officials hired the private EC Driver & Associates engineering firm to review bridge proponents' plan, called "A Vision Beyond Demolition."

The engineering firm said the plan erred in saying the bridge pilings and piling caps, which support the decking, are in fairly good shape. Those supports, made of concrete reinforced with steel, are deteriorating because of the salt water and wave action in Tampa Bay, the EC Driver report said.

Bridge proponents had hoped to keep the supports and replace the decking and supporting beams with prefabricated metal. But EC Driver's engineers said putting an expensive metal structure in an "extremely aggressive environment" just 8 feet above Tampa Bay waters would be a mistake and contrary to Florida Department of Transportation rules.

"The fact is that the existing low-level span substructure and the remaining high-level substructure and superstructure will continue to deteriorate and do so at an accelerated rate," the company said in its report.

But leaders of the movement to save the bridge say they saw glimmers of hope in some of the EC Driver comments. The firm estimated total costs to repair the bridge at $27.5 million. That's higher than the $18.7 million estimate in the support group's "Beyond Demolition" report but lower than previous estimates in county-financed studies.

Also promising is EC Driver's estimate that the $27.5 million worth of repairs would yield a bridge with a 75-year lifespan. Bridge proponents had estimated their repair plan would last at least 30 years.

"The very important thing about their plan is ours was for 30 years; theirs was for 75 years," said Ken Cowart, an architect and one of the founders of the no-name group of bridge proponents.

Cowart conceded the engineering firm "shot holes" in the support group's plan, but he sees the critique as an alternative proposal that can be used to revise "Beyond Demolition."

"We're looking at what they're proposing and marrying the two," Cowart said.

Meanwhile, Cowart and Kevin Thurman, another of the founders of the bridge proponents' group, have been meeting with county commissioners and other government officials to try to garner support. On Thursday, Thurman was in the office of Commissioner Mark Sharpe, probably the most outspoken proponent of saving the bridge.

Sharpe said he agrees with the save-the-bridge group's plan to transform the 56-year-old former Gandy Bridge into a linear park they hope could draw hundreds of thousands of recreationists and tourists.

Similar projects elsewhere have been highly successful, supporters say, citing the High Line, a public park that was formerly an elevated rail line in Manhattan, N.Y., and the Walkway Over the Hudson State Park in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

"The easy thing is to tear the bridge down and move on, but great communities often do great things," Sharpe said. "This would be a great thing for Florida, so there is a tremendous value."

Commissioners were on the verge of approving a contract to demolish the bridge on April 4 but agreed to give bridge proponents more than a month to develop an alternative plan. The supporters met the deadline by producing the "Beyond Demolition" report, which impressed commissioners with its professionalism and slickly packaged conceptual drawings.

Though the EC Driver engineers poked holes in the plan, public support for the bridge's transformation continues to grow, Cowart said. Many of the volunteers are contributing knowledge and expertise, including public relations, technical and financial help.

Perhaps the most important piece is the financial plan. The only county money the group seeks is the $5 million the county was prepared to pay to have the bridge demolished. They plan to raise the rest of the money through a public-private partnership that could apply for grants and capitalize on the bridge/park's popularity through admission or parking fees, sponsorships and advertising.

Commissioners, while supportive of saving the bridge, also are skeptical that this newest group of saviors will be any more successful than others who tried and failed to gather financial support from residents and the private sector.

"I have a responsibility to the public to be cognizant of the costs," Sharpe said.

Commission Chairman Ken Hagan agreed, saying he wants to give the supporters every opportunity to show they can secure necessary financing.

"What I'm most attracted to about this is the public-private partnership," Hagan said. "There is no way Hillsborough County can pay the $18 million or $24 million, whatever the number is. If this trail is to have an opportunity, it's incumbent on the private sector to be involved." © Copyright 2012 Media General Communications Holdings, LLC. A Media General company.