Bridge falls through cracks

A Clearwater Bridge pedestrian bridge must close after Clearwater forgot to inspect the 8-year-old span.

Published May 31, 2007

The city of Clearwater's failure to do basic maintenance on a $500,000 pedestrian bridge on Clearwater Beach has shortened its lifespan by roughly a decade and will likely cost taxpayers significant funds to restore or replace.

The little known underpass, which runs under the Mandalay Channel Bridge and connects the north and south fishing piers, is suffering from advanced corrosion and will close in six months, just eight years after it was built to divert pedestrians from the west end of the Memorial Causeway.

Built with steel and concrete, it was developed in conjunction with the roundabout that opened in December 1999. It has a 15-year warranty that protects it from defects in the materials and the worksmanship, but the white paint covering the steel had just a one-year warranty. It has never been repainted.

The result is saltwater conditions have caused extensive rust spots to spread, threatening key steel supports of the concrete underpass, which is roughly 9 feet wide and 154 feet long. Its lowest point is about 3 feet from the water. It can be accessed from either sidewalk that runs along the causeway.

CONTECH Bridge Solutions, which manufactured the underpass, blamed the city,

"In this case, it appears that a lack of routine inspection and maintenance to combat the environmental conditions accelerated the corrosion of the bridge," CONTECH project manager Robert Carlson wrote to city officials in early April.

Clearwater officials concur. Mike Quillen, the city's director of engineering said the underpass "fell through the cracks" and the city didn't inspect it until about a year ago.

"I think it was unclear about whose department it was under -- engineering, parks and recreation or the marina," he said. "Anyway, we decided to go out there and that's when we found the damage."

The underpass was closed in early March to determine its stability and give the city time to figure out whether the damage was covered under the warranty. It was reopened May 7.

Quillen said higher water from the busy 2004 hurricane season accelerated the massive rusting throughout the bridge's steel supports. Quillen said it's uncommon to use steel on a bridge so close to saltwater, but it still could have been protected if the city had taken care of it.

The city figures the bridge has about six months of use left and will close it in the fall. At that time, the city will decide whether it has to be replaced or if it can be salvaged.

CONTECH officials, though, say the bridge is "beyond proper repair."

How much the bridge would cost to replace is unclear. The city would pay for it from money set aside in a streets and sidewalks fund that's supported with taxpayer dollars. And it would build it with either wood, aluminum or stainless steel, said Joelle Castelli, city spokeswoman.

City Manager Bill Horne said Clearwater will be more vigilant of its property in the future. He said no one is in trouble over not inspecting the bridge, adding "it was a pretty innocent level of inattention that we'll address in the future.

"We'll make sure it doesn't happen again," Horne said.