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A Times Editorial

Red Level bridge deserves attention

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 7, 2002

The state Department of Transportation has resurrected the idea of building another bridge alongside the one that spans the Cross Florida Barge Canal on U.S. 19 in Red Level. It's a project that is long overdue, and we encourage the state DOT to not delay the development and environmental study it began recently.

One reason the bridge is needed is that DOT officials estimate the current one has only a 15-year life span. That's sufficient justification to move ahead with the project.

But another is that projections indicate traffic will increase significantly over the next two decades. As the population grows and commercial and residential development follow, the likelihood of bottlenecks at the bridge will increase if there is only one lane in each direction. The DOT's proposal would increase that to two lanes in each direction.

The state also must consider the possible impact on the bridge if the second phase of the Suncoast Parkway is extended from U.S. 98 in Hernando County to the barge canal. While still uncertain, extending the road is still a very real possibility, and it would be poor planning to funnel all the traffic exiting from a high-speed, four-lane expressway onto a single-lane bridge.

The state DOT also should work closely with the U.S. Coast Guard to focus on the construction of a 40-foot bridge, rather than a 65-foot one.

A 40-foot bridge, at $5-million, would be almost half the estimated cost of the taller version. The Coast Guard favored the taller bridge when this issue was last seriously debated in 1996. At the time, a commercial marina was planned on the east side of the bridge and the developer wanted it to accommodate taller boats. But that project fell by the wayside after it encountered stiff opposition from environmentalists.

Since then, the state Office of Greenways and Trails has moved ahead with its plans for a 110-mile linear park along the man-made canal. When it is completed, it will stretch from the Gulf of Mexico all the way to the St. Johns River in Putnam County, and has the potential to become one of the state's premier recreational facilities for boaters, hikers, bikers and campers.

The park, known as the Cross Florida Greenway, will become a happy ending to a legendary government boondoggle that began in the 1930s when the canal was envisioned as a time-saving shipping route from the gulf to the Atlantic Ocean. Several times over the next 40 years, federal judges entertained arguments about the massive undertaking's potential harm to the Floridan Aquifer and eventually pulled the plug on the congressionally authorized project in 1974.

Now, considering the intended use of the canal and adjacent land as a park, a 40-foot-tall bridge should be enough to handle boats that travel up from the gulf in Inglis to the barge canal at Red Level.

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