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Some listen to 'left field' idea

A South Tampa man comes up with an idea to build a fourth bridge connecting Hillsborough and Pinellas - and he isn't totally discounted.

By SUSAN THURSTON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 1, 2002


TAMPA -- A longtime South Tampa resident says the state should scrap plans for the Gandy Connector. He has a better way to link South Tampa and St. Petersburg:

Build a new bridge over Tampa Bay.

Bubba Nicholson wants to connect the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway with Interstate 375 in downtown St. Petersburg via a four-lane bridge.

It could run over the railroad tracks south of Gandy Boulevard and enter the bay east of Picnic Island in Port Tampa, he argues. On the Pinellas County side, it could land in St. Petersburg near Seventh Avenue NE and connect with I-375 through residential neighborhoods.

"Right now, I-375 and the Selmon expressway are both highways to nowhere," Nicholson said. "Connecting them via the shortest route would make good transportation sense."

His idea marks the latest proposal involving the Gandy Connector, a controversial, high-speed route that would link the Crosstown to the Gandy Bridge. Others include a neighborhood bypass, an elevated highway and even a tunnel under Gandy Boulevard.

Nicholson says his idea strikes a good compromise. Hillsborough County wouldn't get stuck with the Gandy Connector, and Pinellas County would get its hurricane evacuation route.

"It's so obvious that even the stupidest politicians are going to go for it," said Nicholson, a self-proclaimed "political hack" who lives with his mother on Jetton Avenue.

Many disagree.

Even Neil Cosentino has serious doubts. Until recently, Cosentino was the wild hair in the Gandy debate, his underground tunnel drawing snickers from onlookers. But he likens Nicholson's idea to replacing a flat tire with a whole tire factory.

Besides, it really wouldn't solve the problem of tying the Crosstown to the Gandy Bridge.

"I feel like I'm in Alice in Wonderland at Mad Hatter's Tea Party. What's going on here?" said Cosentino, a transportation planning devotee. "This is the twilight zone."

In another time, Ross "Bubba" Nicholson might not be taken seriously. He's a 48-year-old guy with no real job. On the Internet, he claims to have inspired the film, E.T., and he writes scientific papers about the connection between pheromones and crime.

But when it comes to finding alternatives to the Gandy Connector, some people are willing to listen.

Russ Sloan, head of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, plans to ask the Florida Department of Transportation to look into Nicholson's idea. He has no idea whether it's feasible or practical but isn't ready to discount it.

Doing nothing is not an option, he said.

"Just because it's not an idea that has been broached does not mean it doesn't have merit," he said.

Nicholson began promoting the idea a few months ago. He has discussed it with state and private engineers and last week pitched it to neighborhood groups opposed to the Gandy Connector.

The reaction? Stunned silence, he said.

Al Steenson, a member of the Save the Gandy Committee who lives south of Gandy Boulevard, said the idea appears decades premature. Talking about it today, he said, only complicates the existing issue of what to do with Gandy.

"This is way out in left field," he said.

Steenson suspects environmental and financial constraints would kill Nicholson's idea. Any bridge would have to be high enough to accommodate ships that deliver fuel to Port Tampa and adjacent MacDill Air Force Base, he said.

Nicholson says those issues could be addressed. Ships could anchor in the bay and pump gas to shore. The state could seek a variety of funding sources, including federal, local, bonds and tolls, he said.

In addition, the state could use the bridge for the voter-mandated, high-speed rail, he argued.

State Sen. Jim Sebesta, R-Republican, said the concept seems worth considering, although he knows little about it. If Nicholson asks, he'll agree to a meeting, he said.

"I can imagine crossing Tampa Bay would be horribly expensive but you ought to listen to any ideas that come down the pike," he said. "Whether it has any credibility or any legs, that remains to be seen."

Sebesta, who heads the Senate Transportation Committee, heard about the idea several weeks ago through a stream of e-mails from Nicholson. Sebesta said he jokingly wrote back that he should name it Bridge 43, after George W. Bush, the 43rd president.

Nicholson thought Sebesta meant to honor the U.S. airmen killed over Tampa Bay in 1943, but he stuck with the name anyway.

"He can call it whatever he wants," Nicholson said. "Just build the stupid thing."

Nicholson figures the project would cost about $350-million. If he's right, that's $50-million more than the state's elevated highway option but probably less than Cosentino's tunnel project.

The state has no plans to build another bridge over the bay, but projects that the Gandy, Howard Frankland and Courtney Campbell bridges will reach capacity by 2025. Studying Nicholson's idea would take the go-ahead from Hillsborough County's Metropolitan Planning Organization.

"The MPO has to include it on their long-range plan," said Gabor Farkasfalvy, state project manager for the Gandy Connector. "We cannot go out there and study things just because someone asks us to."

Absent details, he suspects the bridge would cost too much.

"I'm not going to say it's crazy, but it's way beyond the ability of the state right now to fund such a project," he said.

Hillsborough County commissioner Pat Frank, a strong opponent of the Gandy Connector, says the project seems unlikely. People would hate extending the Crosstown over the railroad tracks, she said, and even if they didn't, getting permits would take years.

"We'll all be in our graves when that thing gets approved," Frank said. "It doesn't seem practical to me."

Nicholson urges decisionmakers not to dismiss it too quickly.

"It's not a question of if," he said. "It's a question of when."

-- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Susan Thurston can be reached at 226-3394 or thurston@sptimes.com.

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