TrailBridge's supporters say investors interested
TAMPA - Ken Cowart's daughter Vivienne had just been born when Cowart and others started trying to save the Friendship TrailBridge from demolition.
Vivienne, now 15 months old, is walking and talking, but the fate of the once hugely popular TrailBridge is still up in the air.
A year ago, Hillsborough County commissioners voted to indefinitely delay demolition of the then-56-year-old bridge while supporters tried to generate interest from private-sector investors in either reconstructing part of the bridge or building one.
Since then, therehas been little news about progress by the bridge backers, and the county has made no move to publish a request for proposals from private investors.
County Commissioner Sandy Murman, who said she frequently gets questions from constituents about the bridge, has asked for a report from the Public Works Department at Wednesday's commission meeting.
"We haven't heard a peep in months," Murman said Monday. "There's still this $5 million sitting out there in the budget to demolish the Friendship TrailBridge and I think we need to find out this year what's going to happen."
Cowart said he has a group of investors who are interested in turning the bridge into a profit-making linear park.
"We're putting together a team of interested parties," Cowart said. "There are a bunch of moving parts. It's not just the bridge."
The TrailBridge is a former span of the old Gandy Bridge. It was converted to a 2.6-mile recreational trail in December 1999 and was used by a half-million joggers, cyclists and fishermen. The trail was closed in November 2008 because of safety concerns.
According to Cowart and another bridge supporter, Kevin Thurman, private investors would be willing to reconstruct and operate the bridge in return for use of developable land at the span's approaches, parking revenue, rentals to kiosk-type businesses on the bridge and other money-making opportunities. Plus, the county would have to hand over the $5.2 million set aside for the bridge's demolition.
"There are certain assets the public has - the bridge, lands, government support for permits - that are attractive to private developers," Thurman said. "It's an amazing deal for taxpayers. Millions of people used the bridge before, and it would end up being the cheapest park of that size and use the county has ever built."
But county Public Works Director Mike Williams said his department has not developed a request for proposals because of fears such a move would endanger the $5.2 million bid for demolition of the bridge. County commissioners never acted on the proposed contract, and the winning company, American Bridge Co., could give 60 days notice of withdrawing the bid at any time, Williams said.
"I want to make sure we don't lose the possibility of awarding the previous bid should the public-private partnership not work out," Williams said. "So far, the contractor has held his bid."
There are other complications as well. Pinellas County owns half the bridge, but commissioners there have shown no interest in efforts to revive the structure or invest money in it.
"Pinellas County pretty much has concluded the only reasonable thing to do is to demolish it," said Ivan Fernandez, Pinellas County section manager for planning and design. "Hillsborough County has apparently wanted to look at other options."
But it's not clear how much longer Hillsborough commissioners are willing to wait for a feasible plan to surface. On Monday, Cowart and Thurman asked Williams if the county could hold off awarding the bridge demolition contract for 90 more days so they can finish assembling the investment group that would bid on reconstructing the bridge.
Reporter Christopher O'Donnell contributed to this report.