TREASURE ISLAND — At a reception in 2007 marking the completion of the Treasure Island Causeway, people ate free “No Toll-House” cookies.
The fee to cross the Intracoastal Waterway from St. Petersburg was no more.
Today, city leaders aren’t sure those cookies were so funny.
After less than 10 years, hydraulic cylinders on the causeway’s main drawbridge are being replaced, and a long list of repairs nearing $1 million will be needed soon.
The city had hoped the state or county would step in, or perhaps the late Congressman C.W. Bill Young would secure federal funding to defray the costs.
But at a recent city commission meeting, the word “toll” came up again.
Maintaining a $65 million bascule bridge that operates around the clock isn’t a typical budget item for a small Florida beach town, city leaders say.
“I would say if the state doesn’t take it and the county doesn’t take it, how is a city of 7,000 supposed to pay for something when no other city around pays for that?” Vice Mayor Alan Bildz said.
Mayor Bob Minning floated the toll idea at the end of the last commission meeting, though there’s been no formal proposal to reinstate it.
The city manager’s office would first have to determine whether bringing back the toll is allowed. Eliminating tolls was part of an agreement with Young for a $50 million federal grant that paid for most of the bridge construction, though it’s unclear whether that was a formal requirement.
Public works director Jim Murphy had suggested the city would need to put away $250,000 a year above the average routine maintenance of $700,000 to cover major repairs during the bridges’ 75-year lifespan.
The city has been able to put aside $50,000 to $75,000 on average each year, though some big repairs have come up earlier than expected, City Manager Reid Silverboard said.
The money to keep the three causeway bridges beautified and operational, as well as two smaller bridges connecting the Isle of Palms and Isle of Capri neighborhoods, comes from the city’s general fund. The only revenue source is property taxes.
Last year, the commission raised the millage by one-tenth, which will yield $126,000 each year, but that won’t fill the bridge repair gap, to say nothing of saving for its eventual replacement.
“It’s all on the backs of Treasure Island taxpayers,” Minning said.
That includes a small section of the road that is in St. Petersburg.
Minning hopes to avoid the crisis that unfolded when the previous bridges — built in 1939 — reached the end of their useful life. In the spans’ final years, metal plates covered holes where decking had given way.
“Before the new bridges were built, the old bridges got into such a state of disrepair because they weren’t properly maintained that we had more or less a crisis in replacing the bridges,” Minning said.
A slew of repairs ranging from repainting to rust removal that have come due will cost about $750,000, Silverboard said.
The manufacturer has covered the cost of the faulty hydraulic cylinders so far, but other pricey updates to the bascule bridge’s mechanical system will be necessary in the next few years.
Treasure Island is one of only 10 municipalities in the state that owns and operates a bascule bridge.
The city passed on an opportunity several decades ago to hand the bridge over to the Florida Department of Transportation in order to maintain its revenue stream from the then-50-cent toll.
Silverboard said his office hasn’t begun investigating whether the federal grant used in the new bridge construction explicitly prohibits the reinstatement of a toll.
Rather than erecting a toll booth, the city would install an electronic system that scans license plates and bills motorists who don’t have an annual pass, much like the state SunPass system, he said.
There’s no timetable for the commission to discuss or vote on a possible toll, though the mayor promised the issue would be thoroughly vetted in public before any decision is reached.
“Everyone is going to have a chance to chime in on this — good, bad or indifferent,” Minning said.