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State reconsiders barge canal bridge

Proposals for a second span to carry U.S. 19 traffic are getting another look from state officials.

By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 20, 2002


RED LEVEL -- The state is once again exploring the possibility of widening the U.S. 19 bridge over the Cross Florida Barge Canal, an idea that stalled five years ago for lack of Coast Guard approval.

The existing 65-foot-tall bridge carries two lanes of traffic over the canal. The plans under review call for building another two-lane bridge, either 40 feet or 65 feet tall, alongside the existing one, Department of Transportation project manager Scott Farash said.

Together the two bridges would carry four lanes of traffic, just as both sides of U.S. 19 do.

The state Department of Transportation is conducting a Project Development and Environment study examining the need for a second bridge, Farash said.

Once it concludes the study and holds a public hearing, tentatively slated for February 2003, the state will decide whether to build a 65-foot-tall bridge, a 40-foot tall bridge or no new bridge at all.

After reviewing the same options in September 1996, the Department of Transportation decided to build a 40-foot-tall bridge, which cost about half as much as the taller design. But the Coast Guard, which reviews projects that could affect waterway navigability, would not approve a permit for it.

At that time, nearby property owner Jim Eyster planned to build a 256-slip marina along the canal. The Coast Guard preferred the 65-foot-tall bridge design to ensure that boats could easily pass underneath, Farash said.

But times have changed. Eyster's marina plans fell through and he sold his 137 acres in 1998 to the nonprofit Felburn Foundation. Through an arrangement with state Office of Greenways and Trails, part of the Felburn property will become a trail head for the Cross Florida Greenway.

No longer anticipating a crush of boat traffic from the former Eyster property, the Coast Guard may find the 40-foot-tall bridge more acceptable this time around, Farash said.

A Coast Guard official did not return a call Tuesday for comment.

At $5-million, the 40-foot-tall bridge is the more economical option. The 65-foot-tall bridge would come closer to $10-million, Farash said.

"That's a lot of money," he said. "You could do a lot with that money."

So far, no funds have been earmarked for the possible bridge expansion, although officials filed an application last month for up to $11.4-million in federal aid for the project.

Farash said traffic counts alone do not justify the need for two more lanes at this time, but the state is looking ahead. The existing bridge is 35 years old and has about 15 good years left, he said.

"Eventually we'll have to replace that one. It's just a matter of time," Farash said. "We may as well be prepared so when that one bridge needs to be replaced, we'll have a newer bridge."

At that point, the newer bridge could keep the traffic flowing while the old one is replaced. By then, U.S. 19 would probably need four lanes across the canal to handle the growing traffic, he said.

-- Bridget Hall Grumet can be reached at 860-7303 or bhall@sptimes.com.

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