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At last, relief comes to beach businesses

After six months of hassles, residents and business owners cheer the partial opening of the Treasure Island Causeway.

Published June 3, 2006

TREASURE ISLAND — For the people who live and work near the Treasure Island Causeway, the bridge can’t open soon enough.

“It’s been a dead-end street out here for six months,” said Valerie Dilar, owner of The Floridian Cuban Sandwich Shop on 107th Avenue, a prime route to St. Petersburg until the bridge closed in January for replacement. “When people aren’t driving by, they’re not stopping in.”

The bridge is scheduled to partially open Saturday,  with one lane

  •  Length of the bridge system, including the two approach bridges: 1.8 miles

  • The price: $67-million, including a $50-million federal grant for the drawbridge and a $7.2-million state grant for the approach bridges.

  • The opening between the fenders of the new drawbridge: 100 feet. The old bridge opening: 82 feet.

  • Weight of each half of the drawbridge: more than 1-million pounds. The bridge opens like a seesaw and is controlled by four cylinders, two on each side to raise the bridge and two to lower the spans. The drawbridge can be operated by one cylinder on each side if necessary.

  • The bridge is controlled by a computer system built by Siemens in Belgium. Every system has a backup in case of a computer failure. A generator was installed last week in case of a total power failure.

  • When the original toll bridge opened in 1939, the toll was 10 cents for cars, 20 cents for heavy trucks with a driver and a helper, 20 cents for light trucks and trailers, 40 cents for heavy trucks with trailers, and 10 cents for each horse or team of horses. Pedestrians, bicycles and cattle were not allowed.

  • The original Treasure Island Causeway Bridge was built by Hillyer & Lovan of Jacksonville for $1.05-million. The construction was financed after 20 of the city’s 24 registered voters cast ballots in favor of a bond referendum. It took less than a year to complete the project.

  • It took about one minute to open the old bridge. The new bridge will take the same amount of time. It will open on demand for the first year.

open in each direction in its northern span while the southern half is rebuilt. The entire $67-million project should be done by the end of 2007.

Saturday’s opening is a week later than contractors had hoped, but still ahead of the July deadline. The biggest changes motorists will notice are fewer delays because the taller drawbridge won’t need to open as often; a quieter, smoother ride courtesy of the new cement deck; and a lack of tollbooths, as the use of federal money mandates that it be free.

The bridge’s opening will release pressure that has built up on the beach roads all year. That’s because construction is also under way on the Tom Stuart Causeway and the drawbridge at John’s Pass, where ongoing repairs won’t be completed for more than a year.

“This morning I thought I might rather kill myself than drive around one more time,’’ Paradise Island lawyer Mike Keane said recently.

During the past several months, drivers were forced to go north and deal with John’s Pass or Tom Stuart or head south to St. Pete Beach and get hung up at the awkward intersection of Blind Pass Road and 75th Avenue. This kept mainland customers from beach businesses, but also held beach dwellers at bay from St. Petersburg storefronts.

“If I make it through this year, I’ll be lucky,” said Ninette Merz, owner of Suntouched Tanning on Central Avenue near Park Street. She said she makes most of her money during winter and spring, but the bridge closure choked off her lifeline.

“This was absolutely the worst time for me. I lost a good $15,000,” Merz said, choking back tears.

This was the first time in eight years she’s had difficulty paying her bills, she said. She’s now hoping for clouds, rain or El Nino to drive summer sun worshipers to her.

“This has totally devastated me,” she said. “I sold my Harley to buy this shop.”

A neighboring business, Mr. Pizza, had a similar reaction to losing island customers. After 36 years in business making homemade Italian food, 74-year-old Russ Gaeta said running his independent business might just be too much.

“North Carolina, here I come,” he said, toying with moving near one of his six children.

Gaeta said he and his wife, Anna, lost about 20 percent of their business during the bridge work, and that after chain businesses slowly eroded his profits over the years. He said some loyal tourists took the detour because they enjoyed his family atmosphere, but the experience has been near fatal.

“My bookkeeper asks me how I can be surviving,” he said, noting he and his wife take no pay from the restaurant. “Thank God the bridge construction guys came in, at least when they were working on this side.”

Dilar shifted hours and adjusted to survive the closure, but some businesses on the island side also teetered near defeat.

“We survived, but if we didn’t have retirement income, we’d be screwed,” said Rich Kitson of Rich’s Little Doghouse. “If this had happened last year, we’d have been out of business.”

Kitson said his customer counts dropped by half or more and he was losing money just being open. Some loyal customers came back more often than usual to help out.

Loyalty helped Jacqueline Johnson, too. She’s owned Jacqueline’s Salong and Day Spa for five years. But she could empathize with those that had less of a customer base.

“If this would have happened in my first year, I don’t think I would have made it,” she said.

Johnson said she picked up some island customers who didn’t want to travel far for treatments, just as Bassam Musa said he had at Bristol Cleaners just after the bridge closed. Musa said he gained about 20 percent and established new connections.

Others who made money were still less happy.

“Sales were up 11 percent, but if it weren’t for the bridge, it would have been a lot more,” said Corky Stern of Johnny Pastrami’s, a deli and sandwich shop that had been seeing 30 percent gains in the past few years.

Stern said an open-air Saturday market along 107th Avenue helped draw more people to what was otherwise a closed road. When the market started, it boomed, Stern said, but tapered by its close May 20.

“Overall, it did pretty well,” he said. “It probably kept some people alive.”

Stern felt the blow through driving costs on deliveries, too, as did Benjamin Hetrick of Benjamin’s, a florist. His customers might have been just across Boca Ciega Bay, but his drivers had to take the long way around while gas prices soared.

“I used to fill up once a week and now it’s been three times a week,” Hetrick said. “We’ve just had to work very hard to keep our business.”

Treasure Island Mayor Mary Maloof, who was part of the commission that initiated the bridge project, said she is elated about the upcoming opening.

“This is going to be like the gateway to the beaches, and not having to pay the toll means there is such a great opportunity here for new business and new people on the island that have avoided it before, and I think it’s very exciting,” she said. “It is going to be so beautiful.  This bridge is a work of art.”

Times Correspondent Kathy Saunders contributed to this report. Paul Swider can be reached at 892-2271 or or by participating in

[Last modified June 3, 2006, 21:09:01]

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