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Bridge's 6-foot shift reopens old dispute

Design of a multiuse trail puts the Bayway bridge 6 feet closer to St. Pete Beach and reopens a seven-year dispute.

By AMY WIMMER

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 9, 2001


Just four months ago, the mayors of St. Petersburg and St. Pete Beach were shaking hands at the foot of the Pinellas Bayway, announcing that residents from both sides of Boca Ciega Bay had agreed on a design for a new bridge.

The compromise appeared to end a seven-year dispute, in which Isla del Sol residents argued that the bridge should be replaced with a similar drawbridge while St. Pete Beach insisted on a high, fixed span.

The solution? A high bridge, as St. Pete Beach wanted, designed in a way that appeased Isla del Sol.

But now the battle of the little bay is brewing again.

"(St. Pete Beach) wanted a high bridge. They want the impacts not to be on them at all," Dick Allioti, an Isla del Sol resident, said of St. Pete Beach. Allioti is a member of the Department of Transportation's Community Aesthetics Committee, a group DOT formed to choose bridge design details. "Well, life isn't all one way."

The citizens committee, composed of representatives from several neighborhoods surrounding the bridge, is warring over a detail that could shift the bridge 6 feet closer to a St. Pete Beach neighborhood. To those who voted for the shift, the decision is a done deal; to residents of Pass-a-Grille and Vina del Mar, as well as their mayor, the decision should be reversed.

At issue is a cycling and pedestrian trail, originally planned as two 5-foot-wide trails along the north and south extremes of the new four-lane bridge. The trail would link with a trail to Fort De Soto Park, which ultimately will be part of the Pinellas Trail.

Committee members decided to combine the two trails into one for a larger, safer multiuse trail. The problem arose when they tried to decide whether to put the new and improved trail on the north or south side of the bridge.

Because of the way the bridge will be constructed -- first the two eastbound lanes will be built to the south of the existing bridge and opened for traffic, then the existing span will be razed and replaced with the two westbound lanes of the bridge -- the south side of the Bayway already will be more than 61 feet closer to Vina del Mar than it is now.

But committee members want the bridge trail to connect to Fort De Soto, which is south of the Bayway, so they decided the trail should run along the bridge's south side. The decision caused the entire Bayway to grow 6 feet to the south.

The move affects boat traffic in the Vina del Mar area, said committee member Judy Brett, who added that the Belle Vista neighborhood to the north of the bridge would not be similarly affected if the trail was placed on that side.

"Six feet's a big thing," Brett said. "One of the reasons people live in Pass-a-Grille and Vina del Mar is because they have sailboats and don't want to go under the bridge."

Regardless of where the trail is built, it must be on the north side once it reaches St. Pete Beach. Some say that decision was made because the DOT and city already have right of way on the north side; others say residents of the Don CeSar Place neighborhood don't want trail users to spill into their area.

"Their argument is they don't want it along their frontage. They don't want the bikes and the pedestrians to go on Don CeSar Place," said Allioti, the Isla resident. "That is nice. We didn't want a high-level bridge, and they did. We got a high-level bridge. We don't like the high-level bridge, but we're living with it."

St. Pete Beach Mayor Ward Friszolowski, who together with DOT District Secretary Ken Hartmann and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker worked on the compromise for the new bridge design, has asked the DOT's project manager to reconsider shifting the bridge to the south.

Friszolowski wrote to the DOT Project Manager Joe Hitterman in August, suggesting that the state reconsider the 13 feet planned between the westbound and eastbound lanes. By shortening that distance, Friszolowski suggested, Hitterman could appease Vina del Mar residents.

Friszolowski said he doesn't care whether the trail is on the bridge's south side, as long as it doesn't pull the Bayway closer to Vina del Mar.

"The main issue was the proximity of the bridge to Vina, and the issue of consolidating the sidewalks was apparently okay to consolidate it on the south side, just as long as it doesn't get any closer to Vina," Friszolowski said.

But Hitterman said Friday that solution isn't possible.

"There's been considerable effort on the design part to date, and to go back with the realignment would take some additional effort," Hitterman said. "At this point, it would mean a whole realignment of the approaches."

Hitterman also said he doesn't believe Vina del Mar residents' concerns are warranted.

"The argument that it's going to be hard to navigate; we're not seeing that issue," he said.

Committee members who represent the Isla del Sol Owners Association and the Isla Yacht & Country Club say they want the trail on the bridge's south side for safe access to Fort De Soto. They also point out that some buildings on the Isla del Sol side will be closer to the Bayway than the Vina homes will be.

Gil Turner, one of the Isla del Sol representatives on the committee, said "everyone played by the rules except St. Pete Beach" when it came to choosing a position for the trail. He complained that the Vina del Mar Association president, Lyn Heiges, told upset Vina residents how to contact committee members.

"There was a lot of controversy over it. St. Pete Beach people got a little overboard," Turner said. "They gave out phone numbers and e-mail addresses. St. Pete Beach decided they would do their own thing. I was annoyed with that."

Heiges said that the committee's telephone list is a public record because it is working on DOT's behalf.

Turner also was dismayed that Vina del Mar residents attended the committee's meeting and expected to be able to voice their opposition to the committee's decision.

"They can show up, but they can't talk," he said.

The committee has a number of other decisions to make, totaling about $3-million worth of aesthetic choices. DOT is expected to begin construction on the $35-million bridge in late 2003.

Among other decisions, the committee has already agreed to raised concrete dolphins on the approach to the bridge. Soon, it will decide on the aesthetic appearance to the bridge itself.

Hitterman, the project manager, said this project is the first in the Tampa district to include such a high level of community input. He said the passion and interest behind the project led DOT to create the citizens committee, which includes residents from 16 beach area organizations.

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