A property tax referendum to rebuild the Friendship TrailBridge has failed to gain support on the Hillsborough County Commission, so bridge proponents are moving to another plan.
The new proposal: Hire a private company to demolish some or all of the TrailBridge, rebuild a pedestrian span and allow the company to charge for admission, naming rights, sponsorships and vendor rentals.
Last week, commissioners couldn't even muster a vote to begin writing ballot language for the referendum, which would have asked voters to raise their property taxes $25 a year for a house valued at $165,000. The tax increase would have supported a bond issue to rebuild the bridge and construct a host of parks and recreation projects.
The failure to move on the ballot language was a sure sign few commissioners have the stomach for a divisive debate over a new tax.
"We've got to get off the dime," said Commissioner Mark Sharpe, the board's strongest advocate for saving the bridge. "There is no interest in raising tax money."
Seeing the writing on the wall, Sharpe asked County Administrator Mike Merrill for other options, and Merrill suggested fully privatizing a new bridge connecting Pinellas and Hillsborough counties next to the Gandy Bridge.
"It would completely take the county out of the equation except for a lease agreement, or whatever it took to facilitate a fully privatized operation," Merrill said.
The county could retain ownership of the bridge and lease it to the contractor so it would stay off the tax rolls, much like the Tampa Sports Authority, a government entity, owns Raymond James Stadium, Steinbrenner Field and the Forum. The county could also help the developer get tax-exempt bonds, Merrill said, although the company would be responsible for paying back the borrowed money.
Whatever company is chosen to handle the project would be responsible for working out legal arrangements with Pinellas County, which owns half the bridge, and the Florida Department of Transportation, which gave the bridge to Hillsborough and Pinellas counties in 1997, when the new Gandy Bridge opened.
Ken Cowart, an architect and spokesman for the coalition rallying support for the bridge, said a public-private solution was what he had in mind when he first took an interest in the issue.
"The referendum was never really our idea," Cowart said. "The county seems like they want to work and save the bridge instead of demolishing it and they're coming up with different solutions that will dovetail with our original proposal."
Cowart and other young professionals persuaded the commission to delay awarding a contract to demolish the bridge while supporters came up with a plan to save it. Engineers say the bridge, built in 1956, is unsafe due to advanced deterioration of its structural steel.
Most commissioners were cool to Merrill's proposed referendum, to raise $57.5 million for park projects and $27.5 million for rebuilding the bridge. Still fresh in their memories was voters' rejection in 2010 of a one-cent sales tax that would have paid for transportation improvements, including light rail. The measure failed by a 58-42 percent margin.
Sharpe, who risked his re-election by avidly supporting the transportation tax in 2010, said that measure would not have been as divisive if it had not included the expensive light rail component.
In the same vein, Sharpe said the commissioners might be more likely to support a referendum for parks and recreation programs without the $27.5 million included for the bridge.
The bridge "has got to be something where the whole public comes around and supports it because it's good," he said. "It doesn't need to be pulled down with a lot of angry debate."