TAMPA — Hillsborough County officials have decided to demolish the Friendship TrailBridge, an action the county had delayed in June in hopes of enlisting private investors to rebuild the span.
County Public Works Director John Lyons notified architect Ken Cowart in a Jan. 7 letter that the county would go ahead with demolition of the 57-year-old bridge. Cowart, who has campaigned for two years to save the barricaded pedestrian walkway, was working with a group of investors interested in turning the bridge into a linear park connecting Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.
“To date, the county has neither received a response from your group nor any other interested parties,” Lyons wrote Cowart. “Please be advised that the county will proceed with the bridge's demolition.”
Cowart said his group never responded because the next move was supposed to be made by the county. County commissioners had told staff to seek official requests for proposals from potential private partners, he said.
“We have a team assembled and ready to go as soon as an RFP was issued,” Cowart said. “They weren't going to issue an RFP. It's impossible to drum up private interest when there's little public interest.”
Lyons said he doesn't remember the county commission directing his staff to issue any such request, and he was researching commission meeting transcripts Monday. He said Cowart's group could have made a proposal without the formal request.
“They never circled back with us to my knowledge,” Lyons said.
Three county commissioners contacted Monday said they couldn't remember whether they sought a request for bids.
“I seem to recall maybe a year-and-a-half ago, we did give that directive,” Commissioner Al Higginbotham said.
If that were the case and Public Works didn't go out for bids, “it would not be consistent with following through with the requests of the board,” Higginbotham said.
Commissioner Victor Crist said he has reservations about demolishing the bridge and think's Cowart's proposal deserves consideration.
“I know the proposal, while it's a lofty one, was an intriguing one,” Crist said. “And if it could work, it would be something extremely unique and beneficial to this community.”
The TrailBridge is a former span of the old Gandy Bridge converted to a 2.6-mile recreational trail in December 1999. More than 500,000 joggers, cyclists and fishermen used the trail annually.
In 2008, engineers discovered the bridge's structural steel had deteriorated. The trail was closed in November of that year as a safety precaution.
Since that time, coalitions of activists have campaigned to save the bridge, resisting recommendations by county engineers that it be razed. Cowart's group argues the bridge's “hump,” which rises over the navigation channel, is in good shape structurally, meaning only the bridge's lower level spans would have to be replaced.
Cowart and Kevin Thurman, another proponent of saving the bridge, said last year they wanted no county money for the project except the $5.2 million the county had in reserves to demolish the bridge. Private investors, they said, would be willing to rebuild and operate a bridge for pedestrian foot traffic.
In return, they said, developers would want the use of land at the approaches to the bridge, parking revenue, rentals to kiosk-type businesses and other money making opportunities.
But Thurman said the county balked at assuming liability for a restructured span, something he said is done in public-private partnerships all the time. He cited Raymond James Stadium and the Tampa Bay Times Forum as examples. Asking private investors to assume all liability is a deal killer, he said.
“That's not, on a bridge basis, feasible,” Thurman said. “We never suggested this would be a fully private thing.”