tampabay.com

For pocket change, postcard-perfect

By SUE CARLTON
Published September 6, 2006


Blue skies, blue water. The day is almost suspiciously perfect.

If the local folks who pushed so hard to save the old Gandy Bridge had Photoshopped this day - like, say, Katie Couric's promotional picture - it could not have looked better.

The 2.6 miles of concrete over the water between Pinellas and Hillsborough carries runners both sleek and working on it. Tight packs of helmet-headed cyclists whiz past slow-pedaling meanderers. Skaters sail by; power-walkers bounce along.

The Gandy is not without its people-watching potential. Under the summer sun lumbers a woman in heavy hiking boots, a giant backpack that threatens to topple her and what I swear must be lederhosen. Training for mountain climbing? Who knows.

Fishermen dot the catwalks alongside the bridge, sipping cans in the shade and talking squid vs. live shrimp. Leggy herons wait for handouts. Boats cruise past. An osprey rides the wind looking for lunch.

Three dolphins make lazy arcs in the water so close to the bridge you can hear them surface. Something large and silver jumps, setting off an anglers' debate on size and species.

Over here you can see the tall faraway buildings of downtown St. Petersburg. Over there are the high-rise towers of Tampa. Suspended between is this long, wonderfully odd sort of park.

Was there really a question about whether the old Gandy Bridge should be spared the wrecking ball?

When the first Gandy opened back in 1924 ST. PETERSBURG AND TAMPA UNITED, read the Times headline, the toll was 75 cents a car, 20 cents a cow. That bridge was replaced by the now-old Gandy in 1956. When the newest bridge was built in 1996, plans called for tearing down the old bridge's center and leaving the ends as fishing piers.

A group of citizens had a better idea. Why not save the bridge as a recreational trail? Petitions were circulated and the hearts of the Hillsborough and Pinellas county commissions ultimately won, with each side voting to take half-ownership of the bridge.

The bridge got its reprieve just before it was to be knocked down. State money to demolish it instead went into fixing it up. It also got its syrupy new name, the Friendship Trail Bridge.

Not everyone was interested in Friendship. They didn't want the cost of running it. They predicted conflict, runners hit with flying fishhooks. Who would even use the thing?

"Why should a million taxpayers foot the bill for about 5,000 people?" a Pinellas resident wrote in a letter to the editor.

An estimated 600,000 of us now hit the Friendship Trail yearly. Anglers and athletes have forged a coexistence. Plans are in the works for better bathroom facilities and even vending machines, though one enterprising soul currently sells blessedly cold drinks from a balloon-festooned van.

"It's everything we hoped it would be," says Frank Miller, executive director of the nonprofit Friendship Trail Corp.

But about that money.

It takes $320,000 a year to operate the trail. Early naysayers argued that we taxpayers would be left to foot the bill, and they were largely right. Fundraising efforts fell short (though supporters recently sold hundreds of commemorative bricks at $60 each).

Me, I don't mind paying for a park with water on both sides. I can think of price tags that chafe more ($40-million amateur sports field north of Plant City in Hillsborough, anyone?)

Donation boxes on each end of the bridge probably get more attention from birds hunting dead shrimp around them than from those of us who use the bridge. How pathetic is it that in one of the first years, the bridge got a mere $93.04 in donations? (And thanks for those pennies, guys!) Or that Miller confessed he'd contributed much of it? Or that yearly donations haven't gone up much since?

Here's a thought from Miller, blue-sky as it might sound. What if everyone who uses the bridge throws in a dollar once in a while? Just half of us would almost make the budget.

Surely there's room somewhere in our pricey running togs and our flashy bike wear for a buck. In our lederhosen, even.

Sue Carlton can be reached at carlton@sptimes.com.