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RUSKIN: More than an inconvenience after 4+ years

Published on: August 16, 2018

Ruskin bridge repair long overdue by county

Barricades create transients’ loitering area

By Stephen Flanagan Jackson

Jason Warner, a resident of 2nd Avenue Southeast, pauses from cutting the grass in front of his family’s home to point out the barricaded Marsh Creek Bridge which previously connected College Avenue to Shell Point Road in Ruskin.

It would be an understatement to say that Hillsborough County is dragging its bureaucratic feet on repairing or replacing a bridge in Ruskin over Marsh Creek. However, the county just this week announced it is reviewing bids for a possible late-fall start on the bridge project

A gaping hole in the road, which runs over the approximate 50-year-old bridge is not readily discernible to the eye.  That is one reason it is so dangerous — not only to any vehicles that are supposedly prevented from crossing the bridge by barricades and a chain-link fence — but especially so to a child or to an unsuspecting person walking or riding a bicycle who could plunge into the hole, partially hidden by overgrown bushes. The hole is about 3 feet by 6 feet wide on the northeast side of the bridge. Technically, according to the county, the hole was caused by a failed steel pile abutment wall.

And if the three and one-half years of waiting for the county to make repairs, or start a replacement project, is not enough, the damaged, unused bridge has now become a gathering spot for some of the transients passing through Ruskin seeking a quiet, semi-private refuge. 

Firehouse Cultural Center workers Frances Hereford, left, and Beth Stein, across the inlet from the unrepaired bridge, visible in the background, which previously provided access to the center to vehicles and pedestrians, especially school children.

Jason Warner said the damaged bridge is just north of the corner of 2nd Avenue Southeast and 2nd Street Southeast. “It’s our neighborhood. It’s where I grew up and where I live with my wife and children. The bridge was always good for us and a convenience for drivers and walkers between College Avenue and Shell Point Road.

“It’s very disappointing the way the county is neglecting this problem,” said Warner. 

Warner traces the problem back about three and one-half years ago. He said the county’s communication with area residents about the condition, the status and the plans for the bridge has also been lacking.

According to Warner, an inspector from the county or the construction company was out last October and told them we “would see work being done by Christmas.”

Someone put up a few small flag markers, recounts Warner, “But we’ve never seen any work that I can tell.”

The staff at the Firehouse Cultural Center is also disturbed by the county’s reluctance to fix the bridge, which provides a direct link from College Avenue (S.R. 674) to Shell Point Road and to two  educational centers — the high school and the community college — as well as quick access to the Firehouse. Plus, as pointed out by Frances Hereford, volunteer coordinator at the Firehouse, the students from Ruskin Elementary School used to be able to walk down 2nd Avenue to see exhibits and attend events here. “I always liked to use that bridge myself driving here to work,” adds Hereford.

“I’ve been working here over two and one-half years, and the bridge has always been in disrepair and blocked,” said Firehouse events coordinator Beth Stein.

“I’d like to see it fixed,” chimed in Georgia Vahue, Firehouse executive director.

A large hole, dangerously camouflaged by bushes on the barricaded bridge, looms as a hazard to pedestrians and as a mute reminder to Hillsborough County’s delays in repairing the bridge.

The Firehouse Cultural Center staff echoes Warner that the closed bridge has also created another problem — a congregation spot for homeless. A longtime favorite of itinerants for a resting spot on U.S. 41, or the Tamiami Trail, in Ruskin has been the bridge over the Ruskin Inlet and Marsh Creek. Now, the unused bridge on 2nd Street, a block to the east, is attracting the tourists or the transients, some would term them homeless or vagabonds.

Lately some of the transients gather on the damaged bridge to smoke cigarettes and drink beer, said Warner.  And some of them traipse down in back of my uncle’s house in the woods “to camp out.”  Warner attributes his apprehension to the fact that his family does not know who these people are “just wandering around the neighborhood.”

Trying to get a detailed explanation from Hillsborough County, either the district commissioner Sandy Murman or from the county public works department, is frustrating. On Monday, August 13, a spokesperson at Hillsborough County  could only say that, regarding the bridge problem, “It is in progress.” But she added that there “is no schedule to repair it yet.”

In a February 2016 article in The Observer News  about the bridge, Ruskin resident John Gallo told reporter Penny Fletcher, “These inconveniences would not be tolerated in Sun City Center or any other affluent area of the county!”  Gallo wants to see the work completed and the road ready to use, simple as that.

But at that time, James Hudock, a director with Hillsborough County’s Public Works Department, also blamed the lack of attention to the Ruskin bridge problem on “red tape and budget problems.”

  Hudock explained at that time, two and one-half years ago, the damaged bridge was still in the evaluation stage.

“All of the current options being evaluated will require additional funding for design and construction that is not currently programmed in our current budget. We are hopeful that we will have a recommendation on moving forward soon,” said Hudock in February 2016. Meanwhile, like a festering sore, the closed bridge over Marsh Creek continues to languish, largely ignored and put on the back burner by Hillsborough County officials.  Maybe it’s because the price for fixing or replacing the bridge ranges between $800,000 and $1.7 million, according to a county engineering review.

The county is also weighing its unilateral option to permanently close the bridge, basing that alternative on what it terms “a short  detour length (less than three-quarters of a mile), the high replacement or repair costs, and the low vehicle traffic of less than 550 vehicles per day.”

So, for now, all the people of Ruskin have is a runaround from the county ­— figuratively and literally — with no usable bridge over Marsh Creek in sight, only an eyesore and hazard between College Avenue and Shell Point Road.

In a late development just before press time, in response to inquiries by The Observer News, the Hillsborough Public Works Department reported that the construction contract for the 2nd Street bridge project has been published and has received bids. The county expects notice to proceed to be given to the awarded contractor in November 2018. Construction of the bridge is anticipated to last approximately one year. Public Works will send a staff member out to the bridge location to review the area for any safety issues, and advises pedestrians and residents to exercise caution near the area, especially around any kind of equipment or barricading.