Long before she was tall enough to sit behind a steering wheel, Paula Nelson-Blattner was experiencing the best and the worst of the Howard Frankland Bridge.
“As a kid, I was always nervously asking my parents, ‘Did you check your gas?’” said Nelson-Blattner, 52, who got the creeps crossing the concrete span, perched as it is atop golf-tee shaped pillars as far as 58 feet above the waters of Old Tampa Bay. “Of course, once you’re close enough to read the warnings, not a gas station is in sight and it’s far too late to turn back.”
The “check your gas” signs on the Pinellas and Hillsborough sides aren’t just about the distance ahead, some four miles from one end of the bridge to the other. They also signal the risk that you’ll get stuck there for a while.
Since the day it opened in January 1960, the bridge — derided as the Howard Frankenstein, the Car Strangled Spanner and Frankland’s Folly — has proven to be the region’s most frustrating chokepoint as well as its most indispensable link.
The love-hate relationship continues even after major bridge expansions that opened in 1990 and 1992.
So now, the state Department of Transportation is giving the 60-year-old Howard Frankland another makeover at a cost of $865.3 million — most of it to build an all-new bridge just north of the existing spans. Work is expected to finish in 2026.
The collective bridges are named for William Howard Frankland, a Tampa rubber magnate who spent years trying to convince local businessmen, civic leaders and fellow members of the Florida Road Board that a third cross-bay bridge would spark economic development and that a location between the Gandy Bridge and the Courtney Campbell Parkway would be the perfect choice.
Time has proven Frankland right. Interstate expansions followed, making it easier to live on one side of the bay and work on the other. The bridge also gave rise to two of the region’s top economic engines — the West Shore district in Tampa and the Gateway area in Pinellas County.
“It’s at the heart of our region,” said Hillsborough County MPO executive director Beth Alden, “a linchpin connection where major arteries converge and provide access to Tampa International Airport and some of Florida’s largest job districts.”
The new expansion is off to a better start than the last one, anyway: A rubber-necking motorist plowed into the back of another vehicle during the “ground-breaking” back then, “giving the ceremony the appropriate soundtrack of screeching tires and crunching metal,” the St. Petersburg Times reported.
The expansion also includes room for a possible future antidote to the continuing traffic jams — a light rail line.
Initially built to handle 30,000 cars per day, the Howard Frankland Bridge was averaging about 90,000 per day when the 1990s overhauls expanded the original four-lane roadway to the twin spans and eight lanes now in place.
Today, the bridge handles some 132,000 trips per day, making it by far the busiest span in the Tampa Bay area, said Kris Carson, regional spokesperson for the Department of Transportation.
With an estimated 100,000 people expected to move to the region during the next 25 years, the Howard Frankland has emerged as the centerpiece of a state plan to deal with the increase in traffic by adding nearly 100 miles of interstate toll lanes.
“When you’re looking at the amount of future traffic that’s predicted on our roads, it’s just huge,” said regional transportation secretary David Gwynn. “When this is done, we’re going to have a transportation infrastructure there that’s going to serve us well for many years.”
Just make sure it’s safe, advises Nelson-Blattner, who grew up to drive the bridge on a regular basis — and lived to tell the tale.
One day, when she was a young mother, Nelson-Blattner and her baby daughter were following behind another car carrying her grandmother and her grandmother’s nurse to a family outing at the zoo in Tampa. Suddenly, the nurse’s car died and she slammed on the brakes near the top of the hump.
“I had to load my elderly grandmother up and into a Toyota 4 Runner on the shoulder, cars whizzing by,” said Nelson-Blattner, who now lives in Tennessee. “The wind was relentless. My gramie just laughed the whole time during her struggle to climb in, unaware she was dangling on the precipice of the Howard Frankland Bridge.”
Not all drivers have been so lucky.
When the first span opened, there were no warning lights and two-way traffic was separated only by a curb-high concrete median. The Times blasted the new bridge as a “death trap” under the headline, “Seven killed in seven months.”
By the end of 1960, the number of deaths had climbed to 10. Authorities responded by dropping the speed limit from 65 mph to 55 mph, installing warning lights and surveillance cameras, erecting taller barriers and, in 1975, pushing through a state law outlawing lane changes on the bridge.
William Howard Frankland told the Tampa Tribune in 1975 that he didn’t always welcome having the span named for him.
“When the damned thing is backed up it doesn’t bother me near as much as the real bad accidents,” said Frankland, who died in 1980. “I don’t like to hear on the radio that I killed two people in a four-car wreck.”
The new bridge will have eight lanes — four general-purpose lanes to carry traffic from Tampa to St. Petersburg, two express toll lanes, and a 12-foot-wide bicycle and pedestrian trail separated by a concrete barrier and connecting existing trails on both sides of the bay.
Once the new span opens, the bridge that now carries four lanes of traffic from Tampa to St. Petersburg will switch to northbound traffic and the current northbound bridge, the one opened in 1960, will be demolished.
The new span can accommodate future transit options, like self-driving cars, and a portion is being built to carry heavier loads should voters someday approve plans for a light rail system.
“The bridge really was a modern marvel for its time,” said Gregory Deese said, local resident engineer for the Department of Transportation. “But in the early 1960s, most bridges were designed to last 15 years and with today’s technology we build bridges that can have a service life of up to 100 years. So, for an old bridge that’s been ridden hard, it’s really reached the end of its life.”
This month, the department announced that people who responded to a state survey chose square schooner-sail sculptures over a more modern triangular sail design to adorn the new bridge. The nautical theme echoes public art installed along some of Tampa Bay area’s other busiest roadways — the Bayside Bridge and St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport, Pinellas County’s Gateway Area, Tampa’s Westshore district and the Interstate 275, U.S. 19 and 118th Avenue corridors.
The old Howard Frankland Bridge has no public art.
Transportation officials have yet to disclose how much it will cost to use the bridge’s express toll lanes, only that the price will rise and fall based on real-time demand. Previous projections were 15 cents to $2 a mile. Drivers can see their estimated bridge travel time before they enter the toll lanes.
The fee will be suspended if evacuations are ordered. There’s no charge for those riding public transit.
Everyone will benefit from the added lanes, even if they don’t opt to pay for the toll lanes, Deese said.
“And just knowing that this will drastically improve response times for emergency and incident management vehicles is a huge relief,” he said.
As bridge travelers know, the new span is beginning to take shape — in the form of some 3,000 steel and concrete pillars being driven into the bed of old Tampa Bay to form a tall spine of supports called piers. Laid end to end, these pillars would stretch about 40 miles.
The design and construction is a joint venture between Atlanta-based Archer Western Construction LLC, part of the Walsh Group, and the civil engineering firm Traylor Bros. Inc. of Evansville, Ind.
The work started in November and builders were able to speed up the pace as the coronavirus pandemic forced people to stay home, taking much of the traffic off the bridge.
One day this month, small skiffs ferried pile-driver crews, inspectors and surveyors between shore and the barges holding equipment that crews are using to bang the pillars into the bay floor.
A diesel engine raises a large mallet 3 feet above a pillar then lets go, dropping the hammer down in a rhythmic, “shhh-BOOM, shhh-BOOM.” The hammers weigh as much as 47,000 pounds, as much as a whale shark. The pillars, 2½ feet wide per side, are driven at a slight angle to provide more strength against movement from wind, traffic on the roadway, and in case of a ship strike.
Aboard the barge, an inspector counts every blow, roughly 20 of them to move a pillar just 1 inch downward. The hammer won’t stop until the inspector is certain the pillar can’t go any deeper into the limestone bedrock — uneven terrain that can anchor one pier at 49 feet deep and the next at 170 feet.
Sensors attached to the pillars ensure they are secure. The pillars protrude from the water at different heights, creating jagged rows about a dozen across that more resemble supports for a roller coaster than a roadway. Once they’re all in place, crews will cut the tops down to the same height and pour another layer of concrete to encase them. This phase should finish in November.
The pillars are numbered from the east and west toward the center, so the two tallest ones at the new bridge’s hump are called Pier 56 west and Pier 56 east.
Then, work can begin on pouring the footings, columns and caps — the substructure of the bridge. Finally comes the superstructure — 1,727 concrete beams, stretching 48 miles if laid end to end, followed by a deck and the 8-inch thick concrete roadway.
“Eventually,” Deese said, “it’ll begin to look like a bridge. Slowly but surely.”