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State to repair, replace worn Skyway cameras

Choked by salt and damaged by weather, 13 lenses on the bridge will be worked on. Later, more will take their place.

By MIKE BRASSFIELD

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 22, 2001


For more than a decade, they were the unblinking eyes of the Sunshine Skyway -- a set of 13 video cameras mounted on the bridge, constantly watching for car wrecks and unsafe conditions.

Now, most of the Skyway's eyes are blind. The system has fallen into disrepair, and only two of the 13 cameras work.

The passage of time, relentless saltwater corrosion and the occasional lightning strike have rendered most of the system useless.

In a few months, the state will try to fix as many of the cameras as it can. But that's just a stopgap measure.

Later this year, the state will spend nearly $1-million to replace them all with more durable cameras that can be monitored around the clock by the Florida Highway Patrol.

"The cameras we have now are ventilated, because it was once thought that the heat on the bridge would damage them," said Marian Pscion, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Transportation.

"But the heat isn't the problem, it's the corrosion out there," she said. "When you let in air to cool off the cameras, you're letting in the corrosive effects."

The new cameras -- perhaps as many as 17 of them -- will be sealed, she said.

Cameras were mounted along the length of the 4.1-mile bridge to scan for accidents, disabled vehicles, debris in the road, drivers who stop at the top to gawk, approaching bad weather, fog, and suicidal people preparing to jump to their deaths.

The original 13 cameras were installed when the new Skyway opened in 1987. They were part of a $2.2-million traffic-warning system that included 18 call boxes, six message signs for motorists, and miles of electrical wiring for it all.

The cameras let DOT employees monitor traffic from an office at the Skyway tollbooths. Employees call the Florida Highway Patrol when they see an emergency.

But FHP officials can't see what the Skyway cameras show, said FHP Lt. Tim Hines.

The new cameras will be linked directly to the local FHP headquarters in Tampa, Pscion said.

"First, we're going to look at the cameras we have and see what we can do to get them working," Pscion said. That probably will be done in May or June, and it's not clear yet how much that will cost.

The DOT expects to spend about $910,000 on the new cameras later this year, Pscion said, including the cost of linking them to the FHP station.

Pscion said the new cameras will be better.

"The cameras we have now are not surveillance cameras. The picture is jumpy. It's hard to see," she said. "The new cameras will be surveillance cameras."

Over the years, some of the cameras were ruined by lightning that disrupted the bridge's electrics systems. In 1997, inspectors decided the Skyway's lightning protection was inadequate, and new protection was installed in 1998.

In recent years, as the number of suicides on the Skyway increased, state officials have focused more on suicide prevention on the bridge.

In 1999, six crisis phones were installed on the bridge's center spans. The red phones connect callers to a suicide hotline.

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