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    Bridge trail is long on users, short on funds

    An estimated 25,000 people a month use the Friendship Trail Bridge. But finding money for upkeep is a tougher road.

    By LISA GREENE

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published August 4, 2001


    Cloudy skies and light rain Friday morning kept most bicyclists and joggers off the Friendship Trail Bridge.

    But the fishermen were casting out lines, and so was Frank Miller. He was trying to land a catch of his own -- a new way to help pay for the old Gandy highway bridge-turned-recreation trail.

    Miller is executive director of Friendship Trail Corp., the non-profit group that promised to raise money when the trail opened in December 1999.

    Miller admits the group's efforts have been, well, "far from successful."

    How far? To keep the bridge clean and do other routine maintenance costs $300,000 a year.

    In the three years since the non-profit group formed, it has donated about $17,000.

    Board members had big ideas. Colorful corporate-sponsored banners hanging from lightposts. Engraved bricks crossing the 2.6-mile span. Soda machines beckoning thirsty athletes.

    None has become reality.

    So Friday, Miller was at the bridge with board member Bob Kersteen and a cell phone representative, working on the group's latest idea: installing a cell phone tower on the trail.

    "We're just citizens," Miller explained. "We don't have people with a lot of connections. We go to a corporation, and it takes three or four meetings to talk to someone who can talk to a decisionmaker."

    Local officials are searching for other ways to pay for the bridge, which they estimate is used by 25,000 people a month. On weekends, the bridge is jammed: cyclists, joggers and skaters up top, fishermen on the wooden piers that border the bridge down below.

    All of them use the bridge, billed as the world's longest over-the-water recreational trail, for free. Local officials say they want to keep it that way.

    But they must find operating money and deal with a new report that says it will cost $7-million over 30 years to keep the bridge safe for its users.

    Two years ago, Pinellas and Hillsborough officials fought hard to keep the state from tearing down the old bridge. They won. The Department of Transportation turned over ownership of the bridge to the counties, along with the $7-million the state had planned to use to tear it down.

    Now Pinellas County Commissioner John Morroni, who chairs the Friendship Trail Oversight Committee, wants the state's help again. He wrote local legislators last week to find money for the bridge's upkeep.

    Sen. Jim Sebesta, the St. Petersburg Republican who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, said the state might be able to help. But if it does, the counties might have to give up control of the trail, he said.

    "Maybe it's time to sit down and really put together a business plan of how to maintain the bridge for the next 25 years," he said.

    For now, there's enough money to operate the bridge, Morroni said.

    Most of the $7-million was used for railings, fishing piers, portable toilets and repair work to the bridge structure itself. About $1.1-million remains, Morroni said.

    "When push comes to shove, we need to see how much the community wants to help save this bridge," Morroni said, noting the money will run out in 2003.

    It's clear trail group members mean well, Morroni said, but they lack fundraising experience. "In order to raise that kind of money, you have to be very aggressive in asking for it," he said.

    Miller and Hillsborough County Commissioner Jan Platt met last week with Tampa Mayor Dick Greco and walked away with a $50,000 pledge. Morroni plans to ask St. Petersburg for funds.

    Meanwhile, the counties placed "donation station" boxes at each trail end a week ago. They also are talking with transportation officials about putting vending machines on the state land on each end of the trail.

    A few trail visitors said Friday that they would be willing to pay $1 or so to use the trail.

    "It would be like the Skyway bridge. It charges admission," said Alfred Reda, a 70-year-old Pasco County resident who said he drives to the trail to fish three or four times a week.

    "I would pay," said 63-year-old Angel Legarreta as he got on his bicycle. "I love this bridge."

    Sebesta said charging users should be "almost a last resort." But he thinks fundraisers need to consider every option.

    "We've got Tropicana Field now," he said. "Why not the Nike Friendship Trail Bridge?"

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